Given some of the hype that’s surrounded her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career to this point, an eighth-place finish for Danica Patrick would generally and widely be hailed as one of the biggest stories of the day.
Perhaps refreshingly, her run to eighth Sunday in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was a relative afterthought.
It also speaks to an increasing level of competitiveness that has seen Patrick rise from also-ran to genuine mid-level contender over the last several weeks, which is a positive step for her career development.
It was a race that featured a first-time winner in Aric Almirola, several rain delays, her own Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch dominating but falling to the wrong place at the wrong time, and of course, two separate “big ones” (one, two).
Although her No. 10 Florida Lottery/GoDaddy Chevrolet sustained minor damage from slithering through the first “big one” on Lap 21, Patrick otherwise ran a clean, consistent race on what’s widely regarded as one of her best tracks, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
The top-10 result was her second eighth place at Daytona, after also ending eighth in 2013 in the race she scored the pole position. She posted her career-best seventh place finish at Kansas in May.
“It’s been a crazy day,” she said, via USA Today. “I can’t believe we finished eighth.”
As a result of her result, Patrick now ranks ahead of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Cup points standings. Patrick is 27th, Stenhouse 28th. Patrick also is only three positions behind Busch, the new fourth car at SHR.
Stenhouse’s day was a forgettable one after helping to trigger the first 16-car accident on Lap 21.
Patrick’s actually been on the best run of results thus far in her two-plus year career in Cup. Her last month has seen finishes of 17th (Michigan), 18th (Sonoma), 21st (Kentucky) and now eighth. Her qualifying has been much improved as well, with starts of 16th or better in six of the last nine races.
For reference, Patrick had only seven top-20 finishes the entire 2013 season. She has six already in 18 2014 races, so she’s moving in the right direction.
By contrast, Stenhouse appears to be regressing. Yes, he’s matched his 2013 totals of one top-five and three top-10 finishes and has done so in just 18 races. But since his runner-up finish at Bristol in March, Stenhouse has just three top-20 finishes, and has fallen from 10th to 28th in the points standings.
Yes, Daytona is always a crapshoot, but it was still important for Patrick to take advantage at a track she usually does well at. She did on this Sunday.