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It's time for Danica Patrick to make her move

The 2016 season is a good indicator whether Danica Patrick will ever reach stock car racing’s highest peak.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Gone is the day-glo green Go Daddy colors, replaced by a far more subtle baby blue paint scheme representing new sponsor, Nature's Bakery. There is also a new crew chief, Billy Scott, the third person to hold the position in as many years.

But while newness surrounds Danica Patrick, in this her first season of a multi-year contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing, the same question continues to linger as she begins her fourth full season in NASCAR's premier division: Will Patrick ever evolve into an upper-echelon driver whose hype is matched by results on the track?

Since completing the full-time transition from IndyCar to NASCAR in 2012, Patrick has started 118 Sprint Cup races and made incremental progress, seeing her average finish drop nearly five positions. But winning, the ultimate measure of a drivers' worth, still seems unobtainable unless it's at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, the sister restrictor-plate tracks on the schedule.

"I think this is a crucial year for Danica," Jeff Gordon said during the January preseason media tour. "I love having her in the sport. I think she's great for the sport. But it's either she is going to be in a position where this is where she fits in and this is sort of status quo -- your goal is to get from 23rd to 20th? Or this is the year where it's, ‘Hey, we're breaking in top 10s and really starting to see some great progress.'"

Rarely is a driver aligned with a juggernaut such as SHR -- the team with two championships since 2011 and nearly another last season -- afforded the leeway given to Patrick to acclimate. But a collection of sponsors brought upon by mainstream marketability has afforded her the chance to remain with SHR, even if her performance indicates otherwise.

"How do you decide where she should be?" said Tony Stewart, SHR co-owner. "I've seen guys that have been in this series for almost as long as I have that can't crack the top 20 each week. I think it's hard to say where somebody should be. Our job is to give her the best opportunity to have the best day possible every week."

By now, enough evidence has been compiled to accurately ascertain what expectations Patrick should face going forward. And that evidence suggests the 33-year-old has reached her ceiling as a NASCAR driver.

Over the past two seasons, Patrick's average finish was 23.7 in 2014 and 23.5 in 2015. The percent of laps she spent in the top 15 was 14.4 in 2014 and 9.9 in 2015. That lack of progress hasn't gone unnoticed by the competition.

"We talk about racers -- and when I think of racers I think about people that have a lot of different types of experience in different cars." Gordon said. "I think of somebody that, when they're following another car, they're searching, they're thinking about their next move. How can I pass this car? How can I maybe ease up a little bit getting into the corner, turn down and get underneath them? If I get underneath somebody, how do I complete this pass?

"I've seen Danica drive very fast, run some great laps and do a great job qualifying. In the race, I'd like to see her search around a little bit more and take that experience that she has now had the last few years in learning the tracks and the competitors, and start to utilize that to show what a racer she is."

Entering his fourth cup season, Gordon was coming off what would be the first of four championships over a seven-year span -- a stretch that also included 56 victories. Dale Earnhardt won a championship in his second season. Stewart, who like Patrick jumped from IndyCar to NASCAR, captured his first title in his fourth year. And Matt Kenseth's 2003 championship came in his fourth season.

Yet, Earnhardt was a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, a distinction he'll likely share with Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth when their respective turns come. And if suggesting Patrick should have a similar career path is unfair, then what about comparing her to others, who went through the open-wheel to stock car transition?

Juan Pablo Montoya, an all-world talent and former IndyCar and Formula One race winner, jumped to NASCAR full time in 2007 with only a modicum of stock car experience. In his rookie season Montoya won on the Sonoma road course, and two years later earned a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff, and sat third in points with six weeks remaining.

Then there is AJ Allmendinger, who after struggling tremendously in his first two seasons finished in the top five once and the top 10 six times in year three. In 2014, he would win a race and earn a spot in the Chase.

But with the exception of Stewart, the abundance of former open-wheel stars who have crossed have largely struggled, never able to maintain high-level consistency year-after-year. Three-time IndyCar champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. nearly took the 2013 Xfinity Series championship, but never achieved the same kind of success in 167 Cup starts.

"I was successful on the IndyCar side -- winning multiple championships and 19 races," Hornish said. "Juan won races at times in NASCAR and had good runs, and then he went back to IndyCar and came close to winning the championship last year and did win the Indianapolis 500. Some things fit you better as a driver than others.

"I don't know why it works for some and not for others. I think a lot of it is positioning and getting yourself in the right equipment and in the right circumstance with the right people and sponsors around you."

Can Patrick replicate Allmendinger and Montoya's trajectory? Anything is possible. What is certain is that in her fourth season, the bar is clearly raised. Less ambiguous is whether Patrick is capable of reaching such heights. While she did demonstrate some promise with a pair of top-10 finishes in the first eight races of last season, she then regressed with only a single top 15 the rest of the way.

"You can't predict where somebody is going to end up," Stewart said. "You see drivers where one year they have a great year and the next they'll have a bad year."

So, what should Patrick aspire to? Results more in line with teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, each of whom won multiple races in 2015, than with Stewart, who endured an even worse season than what Patrick went through.

Helping her cause would be improved rapport with Scott, who supplants Daniel Knost as crew chief. Despite Knost possessing the engineering background Patrick desired in a team leader, the two never clicked and failed to replicate the chemistry she had with Tony Gibson, whom Knost replaced in the fall of 2014 at Patrick's request. Often, the No. 10 had little initial speed in Friday practice and that carried over into the race.

"I don't know what a realistic expectation is, but I know what my expectation is," Patrick said. "[Finishing] top 15 would be a great place to start and have that be with ease on some levels, so when we do improve we do make it to that next bracket."