Danica Patrick became the highest-finishing female in NASCAR history with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas today – and I became officially wrong about her.
I've taken shots at Danica since her entrance into NASCAR for jumping into a top series too early without enough experience – and seeming to not be committed enough in the process. And when she started her career off by not even coming close to even her own expectations, I was sure my feelings were justified.
Since even IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. couldn't succeed in NASCAR, I figured all along that Danica would be an even bigger flop.
As it turns out, that's not true. Danica is doing a fine job learning at her own pace – and consistently getting better.
It's not even because of today's fourth-place finish at Las Vegas, either. The finish itself – which was going to be a solid top-10 until fuel mileage turned it into a top-five – was immaterial.
The way she raced and drove overall, staying clean while making smart decisions on the track and listening to the constant guidance of spotter T.J. Majors, was admirable. It was by far her best performance, and she looked like a completely different driver than she was at Las Vegas a year ago.
It had started to become clear toward the end of last season that I'd eventually have to eat crow on many of the harsh things I said about Danica; I just didn't expect this day would come so soon.
I doubt she ever read any of my critical blogs, but she probably sensed from my questions that I was a skeptic. To her credit, she was always professional and never made sarcastic remarks or refused to give me an answer.
Danica has proven it's possible to come into a series without any experience and slowly get better. Previously, I thought if a driver was ever going to be any good, they'd have to show flashes of brilliance immediately – which she obviously didn't.
Lesson learned. Now, based on the way she's adapted to stock-car racing, I think Danica can get consistent top-10s by the end of the season. If she commits herself to NASCAR full-time, she might even win a race at some point.
Yep, I said it.
Today's finish was a major milestone for Danica, and it shouldn't go without proper recognition. No female in the history of NASCAR has finished higher than she has – a woman named Sara Christian recorded a fifth-place finish in 1949, which was the second year NASCAR existed.
Danica was clearly in a celebratory mood afterward – not because she made history for a female, but because she had proved she belonged in NASCAR as a racer.
She hugged crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and every crew member in sight. She took a few steps out onto pit road and emphatically waved at the remaining fans in the stands, who cheered and waved back.
"I was hoping for a top-10, secretly," she said. "I didn't want to say that to the media, because then you'd expect me to finish in the top-10."
Danica said she didn't want to "create any sort of false expectation" going forward – especially for Bristol next week – but did allow that she's "making some real progress."
She was visibly thrilled and excited about her performance, her spirits buoyed. And why not? It was a good day.
I asked her how happy she was on a scale of one-to-10.
"Oh, gosh," she said with a laugh. "Today? Right now? I'm a 9."
So apparently, there's still room for improvement.