Danica Patrick silenced her critics – for a week, at least – with a career-high seventh-place finish Saturday night in the 5-hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway.
The finish was no fluke. The Stewart Haas Racing driver was solid throughout the weekend, practicing near the top of the leaderboard, qualifying ninth and racing as high as third before settling for a seventh-place showing at the drop of the checkered flag.
The finished topped her previous career high of eighth, recording in the 2013 Daytona 500, and was clearly her strongest outing yet in a non-restrictor-plate race. The most noteworthy moment of her night came on lap 172, when Patrick passed both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and boss Tony Stewart with a gutsy, fourth-turn maneuver that brought the fans to their feet and moved her from fifth place to third in the running order.
“When I was fifth, I was thinking… `I feel faster than them,’ recalled Patrick. “They got caught up in traffic in (Turns) 3 and 4, checked-up and I got underneath them.
“But when I was running third, I was honestly trying not to think about the fact that I was running third. (I concentrated on) the fact that `I’ve been looking at that car in front of me the whole race and I need to go pass that car.’ When you think about it car by car, it’s a little bit more calming,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is get excited, start overdriving and make mistakes.”
“Honestly, the most rewarding part of my night was when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart,” she admitted. “I say that with all the respect in the world. It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson. Aside from that, I was really just proud that we stayed up front all day. That was the biggest thing.”
Patrick indeed ran among the leaders throughout the night, falling outside the Top-10 only briefly after her final green-flag pit stop with 30 laps remaining.
“You know you’re going to go up and down (in the standings) a little bit, and we sure enough did that,” she said. “But we more than held our own through the whole race.”
Patrick gave high marks to crew chief Tony Gibson and her GoDaddy Chevrolet team, saying, “I’m extremely proud of this crew for building a new car that was just awesome. It was so good on restarts and long runs (with) tires getting old. They built a great (car) and we’ve got more of these coming. That’s the even better news. Hard work pays off and they definitely put the hard work into it.”
She also credited Stewart Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for some pre-qualifying tips that helped her find speed on the tricky, 1.5-mile Kansas layout.
“It definitely paid off in qualifying, for sure,” she said. “And in the race, too. That’s (why) I was really excited about having Kevin and Kurt (Busch) come to the team, and having Tony (Stewart) back full-time. I was able to get little tidbits from those guys and fast-forward my learning curve, instead of having to learn it all myself.
“It’s really cool when you have teammates that are unconditional like that and want to help you,” she said. “When everyone is better -- and we all get better -- it pumps the team up. Everybody wants it even more.”
While a frequent target of the critics in her still-young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Patrick said nights like she enjoyed Saturday go a long way toward bolstering her self-confidence.
“I have always believed in myself,” she said. “I’ve always believed that in the right situation, I can do it. And those little moments -- like when you drive by Jimmie Johnson on the outside -- make me really proud of myself. Little moments like that give me a little bit more confidence.
“I guarantee you we’re going work even harder now,” she said. “We’re going to work harder because we love where we’re at, and this is what we work for.
“When you taste (success), you don’t want to let it go.”