DOVER, Delaware, May 30 (Reuters) - Danica Patrick sits on the floor of a customized motor coach in the infield of Dover International Speedway, softly petting her puppy.
Despite just two Top 10 finishes in two-plus years in NASCAR’s top series, life is good for the 32-year-old pioneer.
“I love what I‘m doing,” she told Reuters on Friday over the roar of qualifying for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race. “It’s a lot of fun. I‘m with a lot of great people and the racing is great.”
Although her results in 58 Sprint Cup starts have been decidedly mixed, the attention that the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Patrick receives continues to rival the sport’s top racers.
She appears resigned to the scrutiny in the male-dominated sport but insists she no longers gets as many questions about being a girl.
“I find the better I do on that track and the more good things I have going on there, the more we talk about that,” she said. “We just talk about the racing and what it took to get there.”
Patrick placed seventh in Kansas two weeks ago but finished 39th last week in Charlotte after being smacked from behind while trying to avoid a wreck in front of her.
She is realistic about the role luck plays in NASCAR.
”I’ve definitely had some bad luck early this year and have had it in the past,“ she said. ”But in the sense of making your own luck, the further up the grid you are the less mistakes you’re around, the less things you get caught up in.
“It’s racing. Sometimes people have lucky streaks and other times you have streaks of bad luck.”
Patrick is the most successful female in the history of American open-wheel racing, her triumph in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 the only victory by a woman in an IndyCar Series race.
Since moving to NASCAR in 2012, she has had to endure the occasional jab, like the one from seven-time NASCAR champ Richard Petty in February that the only way Patrick would win a NASCAR race was “if everybody else stayed home.”
A lot of NASCAR fans applauded Petty’s remarks but driver Tony Stewart, a former champion whose Stewart-Haas Racing gives Patrick her ride, bristles at the criticism.
”She’s much better than the media and some of the fans give her credit for,“ he told reporters Friday. ”Most of the people sitting there saying she is not doing a good job have never set foot in a race car to begin with.
“I don’t really pay attention to that too much. She is doing a good job or we wouldn’t have her here.”
Of Petty’s quip, Patrick said, ”Clearly I think it’s ridiculous.
“I believe in myself,” she said. “I know what I’ve done and where I come from. For me, of course, I don’t think anything of it.”
Patrick said she is ready for luck to land her way but is cautious about setting the bar too high, noting that getting better in stock car racing “is a process.”
”At Kansas two weeks ago I ran in the top 10 virtually the whole race,“ she said. ”That was by far better than I’ve run before. I hope it goes well and I‘m ready if it does. That was an example of being ready if it does.
”But in less than a year in (Sprint) Cup, and less than two-and-a-half years in stock cars period, I‘m not going to say I‘m ready to beat Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, guys that have been in it a long time.
”The worst thing you can do when you’re trying to learn and get better and grow confidence is to set expectation levels unrealistically. As long as the trend is heading upward, that’s what I‘m looking for.
“It’s not that you just have to work hard. You have to work extremely hard.”
For a brief moment, Patrick allowed herself to think about what she would do if she one day takes the checkered flag.
“It’s pretty cool when drivers nose it in on the wall and do a big burnout,” she said with a smile. “When they smoke out the crowd, that’s cool.” (Edting by Frank Pingue)