If you delve into Tony Stewart’s past, you’re going to find some dirt.
Same goes for Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and several other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars. But Danica Patrick? Dig all you want — it isn’t there.
That, in a nutshell, is one big reason Patrick went from the pole position and a top-10 finish in Daytona to a 40th-place qualifying effort and an early exit in Phoenix on Sunday.
What kind of dirt am I speaking of? The kind they pile high and mold into the steep-banked dirt tracks that sit just off back roads and byways all across America.
A lot is made of the transition Stewart made from open-wheel race cars to stock cars, and his career move is viewed by many as a blueprint for Patrick to follow as she looks to rise to the ranks of NASCAR’s elite. But Stewart’s success in NASCAR has more to do with his exploits in the USAC series than his accomplishments on the IndyCar circuit.
If success in the open-wheel ranks translated into success in NASCAR, Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier would be household names to every Sprint Cup fan by now. So what were these champions lacking?
Everyone who’s ever seen “Days of Thunder” can tell you that open-wheel cars weigh roughly half as much as stock cars, but they have much wider tires. As a result, open-wheel drivers grow accustomed to driving race cars that grip the track like Velcro when they sail off into the corners.
NASCAR, on the other hand, puts a premium on wrestling a heavy car through the center of the corner in order to carry as much speed as possible into the next straightaway. To make that happen, a driver has to be comfortable driving a loose setup, which often gives the sensation of the back end of the car sliding out toward the outside retaining wall.
If you’ve raced on dirt, that feeling is as natural as drawing your next breath. But if your entire career has been spent racing open-wheel machines, well, driving a loose race car can register as the first millisecond of a spinout. Not a comfortable feeling.
When you take a quick glance at the list of drivers who have won multiple Cup races and championships over the past decade, you’ll see a list of folks who are comfortable driving loose setups. As the difference in lap times between the fastest car and the 35th-fastest car on the track has narrowed, getting an edge in the center of the corner has become that much more important in the quest to gain an edge on the field.
That brings us back to Patrick.
With a restrictor plate on her car and the high banks of Daytona International Speedway to slingshot her through the corners, she was on an even playing field with everyone else.
But when the plate came off and she was forced to navigate the relatively flat layout in Phoenix, Patrick was decidedly out of her element. She struggled to qualify 40th and climbed out of her car complaining of — you guessed it — a setup that was too loose.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d say Patrick has a much better showing over the next three weeks provided she doesn’t get caught up in a wreck or have some sort of mechanical problem. That hunch comes because the high banking in Las Vegas, Bristol and California should allow Patrick to drive a tighter setup without losing as much ground to the leaders as she was losing in Phoenix.
But a month from now on the flat paperclip layout in Martinsville? If I were a betting man, I’d wager her car won’t make it to the end of that one.
In time, I believe Patrick will adapt and grow more comfortable inside a stock car on flatter racetracks. Unlike the other open-wheel drivers that left before they mastered stock car racing, Patrick has a sponsor that will stick with her until the results start matching the hype that swirls around her on a weekly basis.
With GoDaddy in her corner, Patrick will prove another truism in the NASCAR world: Money buys you time. That will allow her to take baby steps in Stewart’s muddy footprints until the day she’s ready to run.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.