Danica Patrick improving in Nationwide
MONTREAL—The last time Danica Patrick and Jacques Villeneuve crossed paths on a Nationwide road course, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now she gets to race against him again Saturday -- on a track named after his dad. The NAPA 200 is the third and final road race of the Nationwide season, and Villeneuve is on pole.
"It is what it is," Patrick said Friday before qualifying a solid fourth, putting her in the second row alongside Villeneuve and just behind polesitter Alex Tagliani. "It's frustrating. I think it can get you down, and it does get you down a little bit. But the schedule keeps coming at you. You need to have a positive attitude. You need to look at each weekend as the weekend that you could turn it around, have great luck and come back from the last one."
Lady luck has yet to smile on Patrick this season on a road course.
At Road America in June, Villeneuve collided with Patrick on the last lap as the two drivers were battling for a top-five finish, causing Patrick's car to spin out. Villeneuve finished sixth, while Patrick recovered and finished 12th. Last week at Watkins Glen, Patrick was collected on the first turn by Ryan Truex and finished last.
"It was disappointing at Elkhart Lake," said Patrick, who finished 24th in her first NASCAR road race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve last year. "It was a good race and it would have been nice to have come home where we worked hard to be all day. It wasn't a surprise, though. I actually had in my notes from watching the race the year before. I wrote a bunch of different things and one of them was, `Turn 5, first gear, Villeneuve.' I had just gotten into first gear."
Patrick's first full year in the Nationwide series in the No. 7 Chevy for JR Motorsports has had its ups and downs. She won the pole at Daytona for the first race of the season but crashed and finished 38th. She qualified third and finished 13th at Charlotte and was third on the grid for the second Daytona race, led 14 laps, crashed again, and finished 31st. She also led the race at Road America and heading into Saturday's race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve sits 11th in the standings, six points behind Joe Nemechek in 10th.
"If we were just slow everywhere we went, I feel that would almost be worse than getting knocked out and having issues and mistakes," Patrick said. "Speed is important, and once you get on a good pace and are making good decisions, when luck comes your way you're ready to go."
The plan for Patrick, who spent seven years in IndyCar, is to move up to Sprint Cup next year.
"It's not like I had to finish in a certain position or do certain things," Patrick said. "It was an opportunity for me to really grow, just cram a bunch of experience in this year. I jumped in and out of the car so much the last two years that it was hard to pick up where you left off. It almost felt like starting over a lot. So this was the year to really be able to put it all together and get some good experience under my belt."
Patrick said her practice times provide a good source of confidence as she prepares to make the difficult transition to run with the likes of Cup stars Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
"Now, I feel like we're almost always inside the top 10, if not the top five sometimes," she said. "That's a very positive sign for me moving forward because I'm understanding how to get speed out of the car. I really feel like a lot of stuff is going in the right direction. I've definitely made some mistakes. For sure, there's definitely been a hefty amount of bad luck. At the end of the day, I find it far more important to go out and get results, but looking long-term into the future, the most important thing that I can do this year is learn and get experience and be prepared for next year."
So far this season, Patrick has six top-10 starts, six DNFs, and a best finish of eighth at Texas, her lone top 10.
"I keep reminding her that I had a season just like that. It took a lot of races for me to get going fast, and that's what I've tried to explain to her," said defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a good friend. "I think she's gotten a lot better since she started. Even though I won the championship last year, I'm still getting better every single race. You're not going to do it in a couple of races."
Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler, who started 429 races in 12 years in the Sprint Cup series, said only one person knows if Patrick will be ready for that next step.
"I think deep down inside she knows whether she's ready to go to the Cup series," Sadler said. "I think the more experience she gets at whatever level it is that she will get better. This is way different racing than open-wheel racing. I think she's improved tremendously over the last couple of years. She's always been able to go fast. That's one thing -- that girl is not scared of going fast. She just needs more racing experience, door to door, bumper to bumper, close-quarter racing, and I think as she gets that these last 12 races, deep down inside she'll know whether she's ready or not to make the jump."
Patrick said she would run races in the Nationwide series next year, and that's music to the ears of crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
"We'd like to see her run this series again next year," Eury said after Patrick posted the fourth-fastest time in the second practice on Friday. "I think the Cup deal is going to be really challenging, but she's done really good. She's really stepped up her game in the last three years.
"She's definitely had a challenge because everything that the IndyCar does, in this world it's the complete opposite, for driving lines to the way you brake, the way you race, so she's had a lot of issues that she's had to get over and overcome," Eury said. "She's done really well."
As for that run-in with Villeneuve, it's in the rearview mirror -- for now.
"That deal at Road America was just somebody that's on the track that has no respect for anybody," Eury said. "It wasn't just singling out her. That's just a common denominator. She's getting in there and mixing it up. She gets a little bit when she deserves it."
John Kekis can be followed at http://twitter.com/Greek1947