As NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick continues in her first full season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, she met with reporters Thursday as she prepares to face one of her toughest challenges yet: NASCAR’s longest race the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Patrick has one other start in the Cup series at Charlotte that coming in the same race last season; she started 40th and finished 30th. In last Saturday’s All-Star race, Patrick was voted in as the fan favorite; she started 22nd and finished 20th.
She was scheduled to start 24th in this year’s event but the crew was forced to change the engine in her Chevy in Saturday’s first practice session. Under NASCAR’s rules, Patrick will be forced to start at the back of the field Sunday.
Thursday the former Indy car racer talked about running the longest race of the season, missing the Indy 500 and Memorial Day.
Q. Danica, what does Memorial Day mean to you?
DANICA PATRICK: I thought you were going to ask me about labor. What does Memorial Day mean to me?
Well, for me, for so long obviously it meant Indy. It’s not Labor Day, it’s Memorial Day. I’m like, wait, no.
Memorial Day was the month of May for me. It was Indianapolis. It was a lot about the military, the people that serve our country on race day, everything down to them being the ones that sang national anthems sometimes before the race.
It’s the start of summer.
Q. Do you feel you’re a better driver than years past?
DANICA PATRICK: I don’t know. It doesn’t look like it out there. There’s definitely no chance that I’m getting worse. Continuing to learn and get more comfortable. We’re learning with the car. We know we have a lot further to go with getting to a place of speed that we want. But every day that we’re on track, every lap that we make is going to bring us a little closer and learn a little bit more. Sometimes it’s about what not to do.
Q. This is one of the signature races of the season, not just a holiday weekend. The longest race the year. How important would it be for you to run well here, change the conversation a little bit? How close do you think your team is to competing week in, week out in the top 10?
DANICA PATRICK: It’s always really nice to do well when everyone is watching or when more people are watching. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that that happens a lot, whether it be Indy or Daytona or big races like that. It’s been a nice coincidence for me.
We didn’t have a special race here last year in the Coke 600, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t this weekend. Hopefully we keep that trend going of having good weekends on big weekends.
Q. How close do you think you are to running in the top 10 consistently?
DANICA PATRICK: I think that as an organization I feel like half of the battle is kind of figuring out what it is, and I think we have a grasp, an idea, of what that is, what those things are. Executing is the next challenge.
I think it’s going to take some time. I don’t know how long it will take to have those issues fixed ultimately, but I feel like we have an idea of where we need to go.
Q. On race day, what do you do to get yourself mentally prepared to race? Any kind of rituals?
DANICA PATRICK: I listen to Eye of the Tiger six times and I do 40 push-ups in a row (laughter).
I don’t do anything unique or different. I just have a normal morning. I don’t think that changing it up means anything. Superstitions are only real if you believe in them.
They change based on what race time is, what there is to do before the race. Night races are far different days than noon races. No, I don’t do anything in particular.
Q. As you gain more experience in the car, your thought process, the things you’re thinking about as the race progresses, how has that changed from a year or so ago? I guess you’re learning more things.
DANICA PATRICK: I would say the biggest difference between when I’m out running the car at the beginning last year and now, I just feel like I understand a little bit better, definitely not great, but I understand better what’s happening with the car, whether it’s the splitter hitting, whether or not it’s falling over on the right rear, something like that. I can identify the issues a little bit better than I could in the beginning, of course.
Q. How much does that help you?
DANICA PATRICK: It just helps to be able to identify the problem so I can relay the right information to Gibson so he can fix it. He’s only as good as the information I give him.
Over time I’m getting better at that, help hone in on what change is the best one, not by telling him, but giving him more detailed information.
Q. This being Indy 500 week, do you think more about possibly doing the double at some point seeing all that going on?
DANICA PATRICK: I would say that I don’t think more about it when Indy comes up as far as on the schedule. But I would say that I think about it each year at the end of the year what I want to do.
I really tried hard to do it this year. We all did on my team. Ultimately it came down to the fact that it wasn’t going to help me here, and this is what I’ve chosen to do now, it’s not fair to take away from it. I have a long way to go to figure this out. I need to focus here.
As the years go by, more and more distance goes between my full-time IndyCar career and now, it gets less and less likely.
Q. Homesick feeling watching it?
DANICA PATRICK: No. I have really fond memories. I, of course, would have loved to have won the race. I feel very fortunate as a driver to have been in a position to win a few times. Definitely two times having a really, really good chance. I feel good about that.
It’s just one race. It is the Indy 500, but I feel like I also did good things. While Indy can kind of make a driver, I feel like it is part of what made me who I am today. So it did those things for me. I didn’t win, but it did make me who I am today.
Q. 600 miles tougher physically or mentally?
DANICA PATRICK: Physically it’s just about hydration. Mentally it’s about hydration actually, I would say. Honestly, that’s where you lose it.
I’ve already started working on that. To be honest, that’s kind of the norm for NASCAR. These long races on Sundays, you really need to focus on just staying hydrated. The car is not hard to turn. It’s not physically difficult to drive. But you do sweat your butt off in there, so I’m working on that.
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