Danica under the microscope

Any attempt to assess Danica Patrick’s progress competing in stock car racing’s major league becomes a bit ticklish.

A burden of proof remains, of course.

But maintain perspective and the analyst is likely to be dismissed as an apologist for a female driver whose willingness to confront a monumental challenge should not require an apology.

Patrick, early in only her third full NASCAR Sprint Cup season, enters a contract year with GoDaddy and Stewart-Haas Racing having taken admittedly small steps. Her detractors are demanding giant leaps.

NASCAR swooned at the marketing potential from having Patrick in a stock car while she was finishing third and fourth in the Indianapolis 500 (2009, 2005) and becoming the first woman to win an Indy-car race, in Japan (2008).

But the marketing machine that accompanies her joust with history and the remnants of a good-ol’-boy mentality have predictably generated an intensified scrutiny of just where she fits.

Emerging doubters eager to pounce had to hold their fire. In her 11th start but first race as a full-time Cup driver, the 2013 Daytona 500, she qualified for the pole, led five laps, ran third in closing laps and got freight-trained back to eighth in climactic skirmishing.

That became her lone top-10 finish of a difficult 2013 season; she finished 27th in points. Last year a seventh at Kansas City and then a sixth at Atlanta provided career bests and gave her three top-10 finishes. She wound up 28th in points but generally performed better than the results reflected.

Yes, the 32-year-old Patrick has been a novelty since she began making headlines. She will remain a novelty until another woman lands a full-time Sprint Cup ride, which does not look remotely possible for the foreseeable future.

Will she ever win? A Charlotte Observer columnist, reacting to a Patrick tantrum aimed at Denny Hamlin after a qualifying race mishap at Daytona, scathingly forecast that she won’t, that the best she can hope for is mid-pack.

But those who require a Patrick victory before they will concede her credibility appear irrational. A journeyman pitcher can get the best of Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner on a given day. To win, Patrick has to beat Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and a couple dozen others of established ability on the same day.

Those 27th- and 28th-place points finishes may look damning to some. However, consider that if she finishes ahead of only those regular rivals who have not reigned as a Sprint Cup or Xfinity series champion or won the Daytona 500, she will peak at 22nd. And that list of luminaries does not include the likes of Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.

Patrick, feisty and prone to venting her frustration or anger, has grown to recognize what a challenge she has taken on. The best way to proceed, she has said, will be to “try to stay mistake-free and try to be positive and keep everyone upbeat.”

Some believe she’s at “a crossroads” in her Cup career. That’s premature. Most she is chasing have literally hundreds of Cup starts more than her 84.

But Patrick and team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas are on record that they want to continue the association past 2015. A signed contract would relieve some of the burden she shoulders.

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