KANSAS CITY, KAN. (AP) - Danica Patrick has a hard time believing that it’s been more than five years since she passed under the flag stand with the checkers waving at the end of any race.
Indeed, much has happened since her IndyCar win at Motegi.
She spent three more seasons racing open-wheel cars while making the slow transition to stock cars, sped up the progress with a full-season on the Nationwide Series, and now is bumping along in her first full season in the Sprint Cup series for Stewart-Haas Racing.
“It’s still a happy memory, and my only win in any car, but it was a long time ago,” Patrick said of her triumph in Japan. “It was a good feeling, and I would like to get that feeling back.”
She experienced a similar sensation at the season-opening Daytona 500.
Patrick turned heads by becoming the first woman to start from the pole, and then became the first to lead a lap in a Sprint Cup race. She was still running third on the final lap, but was schooled a bit by a handful of veterans and faded to an eighth-place finish.
Things haven’t been nearly as rosy since then for the No. 10 Chevrolet team.
Patrick turned in her best qualifying run since Daytona this weekend at Kansas, turning a lap of 187.774 mph to start 25th for Sunday’s race. Otherwise, she’s been starting races somewhere near the back of the back, with her best finish 12th a couple weeks ago at Martinsville.
“I was talking to Tony (Stewart) after practice and I was like, `I’ve got to figure out a way to qualify better,’” Patrick said in the garage area. “A lot of the runs, there have been obvious issues, whether we’re really loose or really tight or having a moment.
“I was saying that in the Nationwide Series, once I got comfortable in the car and understood it and what it did when you pushed it and developed a setup that I’m really comfortable with things really changed,” she said. “All of the sudden, it was like a light switch and I was like `All right. I’m not so bad at qualifying these things anymore.’ But it took time.”
Patrick has plenty of experience on the 1 1/2-mile tri-oval of Kansas Speedway.
She finished 32nd in one of its two Sprint Cup races last season, but also finished 15th and 10th in her two Nationwide starts at the track. She also made six starts in an IndyCar, winning the pole in 2005 and finishing in the top 10 three times.
“Any time you have track time in the car, I think it’s helpful,” Patrick said. “I have notes from last year, obviously, my own notes, the team notes from what we did. And it’s helpful. But at the end of the day, you can be really good one year and not the next based on the car.”
NASCAR, which had seen interest wane a bit in recent years, has certainly noticed an uptick again with Patrick on the grid. Television ratings for the Daytona 500 were up 30 percent over last year, thanks in no small part to Patrick spending much of the race in contention.
“I think that when I’m running well, let’s say Daytona, qualifying on the pole, there are a lot of stories written,” she said. “It drums up a lot of attention and interest and pure curiosity _ like, `How’s this going to work out? Is she going to hang on? Is she going to drop back? Is she going to be good?’ That curiosity might lead to viewership.