CONCORD, N.C. – Danica Patrick is the first to admit her second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season hasn’t gone the way she’d hoped.
Her average finish hovers around 25th after 11 races. She’s 27th in points.
One aspect of this season, however, shows how much Patrick has improved. She’s qualified in the top 10 in three of her past six Sprint Cup starts, a higher total than six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Patrick posted one top-10 start – a Daytona 500 pole last year – in her first 51 races. NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format has helped Patrick become formidable during time trials.
“It’s obviously something that I needed to work on,” Patrick said. “You still have to have a good car, and the first top-10 (of 2014) was at Martinsville (Va. Speedway in March). We saw how I ran that day. I was absolutely terrible that day (finishing 32nd).
“It’s not everything, but it definitely helps.”
NASCAR’s new qualifying system locks in cars from 25th-43rd after one round, 13th-24th after two rounds and then lets the 12 fastest cars race for the pole on 1.25-mile-and-longer tracks. On short tracks, the cars from 13th-43rd are exempt after one round.
It’s a far cry from the old single-car qualifying runs. It’s also been more successful for Patrick, one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.
“I would venture to say that when knockout qualifying happens and we all get done with our first run,” Patrick said, “there are a heck of a lot more times that I have been in the top 15 (than not).”
Patrick isn’t the only driver to take a liking to the new format.
Her Stewart-Haas Racing team has picked it up across the board since knockout qualifying debuted in February at Phoenix (Ariz.) Int’l Raceway. Patrick’s teammate, Kevin Harvick, has two poles. Team co-owner Tony Stewart posted one at Texas Motor Speedway.
Maybe it’s Patrick’s turn at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, where the Sprint Cup tour qualifies on Thursday for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
Patrick’s seventh-place start at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and her ninth-place start – and seventh-place finish – at Kansas Speedway two weeks gave her some momentum heading into Charlotte.
It didn’t carry over to all-star weekend. Patrick started seventh and finished 10th in the Sprint Showdown, then lost the All-Star Race fan vote to Josh Wise.
No matter. Patrick, who fought handling issues throughout the Showdown, moved her focus to the Coca-Cola 600.
Her position on the speed charts has gotten better this year, but Patrick cautioned that there’s still plenty of work to do. The 32-year-old Roscoe, Ill. native won three poles in a seven-year Verizon IndyCar Series career, so she knows how to start up front.
Knockout qualifying helps her, she said, but it’s not the end-all fix she needs to move up in points.
“There are times when you find speed and you make something happen and you get in (the final qualifying round),” Patrick said. “Then there are times that you get in a good time and you go out and you go from being 11th in the first round and then you’re 24th, and you’re like, ‘Well, that sucked.’
“If (knockout qualifying) is more interesting for the fans, that’s the most important thing for our sport because we are fan-driven so much. We have to keep them entertained. At the end of the day, it’s just racing, driving as fast as you can, and more of it.”