2014 didn't start out well for Patrick. She wrecked on the 145th lap of the Daytona 500, dropping her out of the race and putting her at 40th. A week later, she had two accidents in a 15-lap stretch at The Profit on CNBC 500, bowing out after 266 laps and ending up in 36th.
Those two races are a microcosm of Patrick's time in both Sprint Cup and NASCAR as a whole, as a combination of bad luck and poor driving has prevented the star from shedding the perception that she's merely a pretty face with marginal talent.
But Patrick's results have improved in recent weeks. She ended the Kobalt 400 in 21st and moved up 18 spots from her starting position to finish 18th at Bristol last Sunday.
After the Food City 500, Patrick jumped from 33rd to 28th in the standings.
|2014 Sprint Cup Standings|
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Pts.||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|29||Martin Truex Jr.||78||61||0||0||0|
|Danica Patrick 2014 Results|
|Food City 500||Bristol Motor Speedway||36||18|
|Kobalt 400||Las Vegas Motor Speedway||22||21|
|The Profit on CNBC 500||Phoenix International Raceway||33||36|
|Daytona 500||Daytona International Speedway||27||40|
Bristol could have gone very badly for Patrick. She crashed during practice ahead of the race, so she was forced to go with a backup car last Sunday. Between that and being stuck in fourth gear for the end of the race, finishing 18th doesn't look all that bad.
After the race, Patrick commented that she was satisfied with her performance in the Food City 500, per USA Today.
"We had to go to a backup car just four laps into practice, so I appreciate the effort of (crew chief) Tony Gibson and the guys," she said. "It was a tough weekend, so to come out of here with 18th, I'll take it."
Gibson was a little more enthusiastic, via ESPNW.com's Brant James:
It was a lot to overcome. Nobody quit. Nobody gave up. It just shows you that when it can't get any worse, it usually does, but if you stay strong and keep your head up you can turn it around, and that's what we did today.
To be only one lap down and finish 18th from where we started, I'll take that, from wrecking the car and qualifying in the back and having damage early and losing the transmission.
With St. Patrick's Day on the following day, Patrick said she had the luck of the Irish on her side:
Few, if any, fans will expect Patrick to put together a winning performance on Sunday. As her critics are all to quick to point out, she has never won in either the Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series and has eight top-10 finishes in 111 career races.
She has only raced once at the Auto Club Speedway, and in the process became the second female to take part in a Sprint Cup race at the track (Shawna Robinson being the other.) Patrick started out in 40th at last year's Auto Club 400 and would eventually finish 26th. It was her best result of the season through the first four races in 2013.
This race is more about building momentum and moving forward in 2014. Patrick doesn't have the built-in excuse of this being her rookie season.
Now she's more a veteran of the circuit and knows the expectations that come with her celebrity week in and week out. Anything less than a finish of 26th or higher in the final standings will be a major disappointment.
At least with the last two races, Patrick seems to be slowly but surely turning the corner in her career.
If she can end in the 10-20 range again on Sunday, it will be a job well done.