SONOMA -- Danica Patrick walks into the media center at Sonoma Raceway after the first practice session of the weekend and is not in a terribly good mood. The performance of her car is erratic, unsettled. She knows a ton of work will need to be done if she hopes to be a factor in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
"Well, I had hoped that being here before would have made it a little bit better for me out there, but it didn't," Patrick said. "So, I don't know. The car just doesn't feel very good."
Such frustration has been the norm, rather than the exception, in Patrick's first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. She's 27th in the driver standings entering Sunday, with just one top-10 finish in the first 15 races. Unless she can win a race or two, Patrick will not make the season-ending Chase for the Cup.
But according to Patrick and others who regularly follow the sport, it may just be a matter of time. She's learning the lessons she needs to learn, and the way she's racing may be better than what the final results indicate.
"I think she understands a little bit more each and every race," said Ryan Newman, her teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Last week at Michigan International Speedway, she finished 13th, her best result since she took 12th at Martinsville in the sixth race of the season.
"What she does well is stay out of trouble. If she gets in trouble, it's because somebody got her in trouble," FOX and TNT commentator Larry McReynolds said. "That's what she did at Michigan last week that was so impressive. I looked down there and she's running 26th or 27th. Then I look down there later and she's cracked the top 20. She's 19th. Next thing I know, she's in the top 15."
"It's a bit of a relief to get something of a result finally," Patrick said. "I guess my words afterwards were I felt like we should have had a few of those by now. But it took a while."
Now Patrick is hoping for better results on road courses.
Last year, in her first season in the Nationwide Series, she ran over a shoe at Montreal, was spun out at Road America and collected in a wreck at Watkins Glen.
In both the Road America and Montreal races, Patrick was competing for a spot in the top five. At Road America, she was spun out by Jacques Villeneuve in the last lap as the two were competing for fourth, causing a rift between the two drivers that still hasn't healed.
Patrick was leading the race at Montreal when a spectator threw a shoe onto the track. Patrick ran over the shoe, and soon her car started to lose its handling. She finished 26th, six laps behind.
At Watkins Glen, she was in an accident in the first turn of Lap 1 and finished last.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, who covered the Montreal race for ESPN, came away impressed with Patrick's road course-racing ability.
"It would not surprise me if she goes out to California on the road course and runs really well," Wallace said. "She ran great at Montreal and at Road America -- she really ran fast. So for her to get in a Cup car and run well, it really wouldn't surprise me."
It won't come easy at Sonoma Raceway, where she competed for seven years in IndyCar but finished outside the top 15 from 2009-11. Racing in Sonoma for the first time since she left open wheel after the 2011 season, Patrick qualified 31st for Sunday's race.
"Other than, like she said, knowing where the garage area's at and knowing where the ladies' restroom is at," McReynolds said, "that's about the only benefit of running an IndyCar here seven times."
Perhaps most of all, Patrick is looking for consistency.
"I think that probably every driver can feel like they are owed something in different areas just based on their lack of luck. But you just have to keep plugging away," Patrick said. "For every up, there's a down. And it doesn't mean that it's going to come next. It just means that it will come eventually."
Jamie McMurray wins the pole for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. See Page 6