Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 15 — Danica Patrick, did she improve in 2014 or not?

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Numbers are the lifeblood of NASCAR.

Among the most significant figures are those that gauge a driver’s overall performance in a season, as well as the gains or losses he or she has made from the previous season.

In her second full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Danica Patrick finished one spot lower than her first full-time campaign, 28th in 2014 vs. 27th in 2013.

That would seem like a setback when it comes to numbers.

But a case can be made that Patrick actually showed some improvement in 2014 over the previous season.

While she didn’t have the splashy season opener at Daytona (crashed and finished 40th) in 2014 like she did in 2013, when she won the pole and finished eighth (her only top-10 finish of the season), Patrick did have three top-10 finishes in 2014, including a career-best sixth-place showing at Atlanta.

Crew chief Tony Gibson continued to be an excellent mentor for Patrick, but admittedly, there still was inconsistency in her race-to-race performances.

Plus, restarts continued to be one of Patrick’s biggest problem areas.

“The biggest thing that holds her back is her restarts,” Gibson told ESPN.com after Homestead. “She’s got to really figure out a way to race better and be more aggressive on restarts. … If she can ever figure out how to get her restarts better here, she can hold her position or gain two or three, she will be more successful.”

But there are plenty of indicators still that showed she indeed made progress in 2014 over 2013:

* She had 14 top-20 finishes vs. just nine in 2013.

* She led 15 laps in 2014 vs. just five in 2013.

* She had an average start per race of 22.3 in 2014 vs. 30.1 in 2013.

* She had an average finish per race of 23.7 in 2014 vs. 26.1 in 2013.

* And perhaps the most telling improvement of all was in lead-lap finishes, going from just 12 in 2013 to 19 in 2014.

Yet even with the signs of improvement, Patrick lost Gibson as her crew chief prior to the Texas Chase race, when he was shifted to the same role with veteran and 2004 Sprint Cup champ Kurt Busch. That move is permanent going forward.

Daniel Knost, who was Busch’s crew chief for his first 33 races with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, was then moved atop Patrick’s pit box. Her finishes in the three races with Knost were a mixed bag: 36th (Texas), 22nd (Phoenix) and 18th (Homestead).

There’s also a bit of uncertainty on exactly what Knost’s status is. When he was shifted to Patrick’s team, it was initially announced as an interim role.

But here we are in mid-December and there’s been no announcement of a new crew chief for Patrick for 2015. That could mean Knost may remain in the role to give more time to see how well he and Patrick may jell if they have a full season ahead of them.

No matter who ultimately becomes her crew chief, Patrick feels the improvement she made in 2014 was a good sign of even better things to come in 2015.

Realistically, going into her third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick should be able to finish in the top 25, if not the top 20 in the final 2015 standings.

The higher up she finishes, the more successful a season it will be.

And, of course, earning her first Sprint Cup win would also go a long way towards building momentum and confidence.

But as long as she continues showing improvement and progress, that’s all anyone can ask.

“We did improve this year, and I hope we do better in 2015,” she said late in the 2014 season. “(I’m) looking forward to next year.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski