“Chicks rule, huh?” crew chief Tony Gibson playfully told her at Kansas.
She may not have totally ruled, but she put on a performance that recalled her better ones at the Indianapolis 500. Patrick showed that she can be a serious driver who can craft a complete weekend and contend for a top-five finish.
Patrick was the surprise of Saturday night with her seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway, the best of her Cup career.
Stewart-Haas Racing boss and teammate Tony Stewart, Gibson, and her parents were among the throng of well-wishers in the garage that made it a celebratory scene straight out of her dazzling Daytona 500 to kick off 2013.
“I’ve always believed in myself and with the right situation, a good car, that I can do it,” she said.
She easily had her best weekend of the season, spending most of the race inside the top 10, and brought a needed jolt of electricity in a race during which the lights went out on the backstretch, passing teammate Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to move into third with 95 laps left.
She also passed six-time champion Jimmie Johnson on a late restart, adding him to the collection of heavy hitters left in the rearview mirror.
“The most rewarding part of my night was probably when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart,” he said. “That was probably my most rewarding thing of the night. I say that with all the respect in the world. It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson.”
Patrick hadn’t finished better this season than 14th at Fontana and her lone top-10 in the Cup series was eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500. She won a pole at Kansas in IndyCar in 2005.
Patrick qualified ninth for her second straight top-10 start, and SHR teammate Kevin Harvick said a little 15-minute pep talk may have spurred her to another solid qualifying run.
“She just basically needed to quit thinking about it and smash the gas,” he said. “That’s what she said. She’s done a great job in trying to take in all the information.”
She has the support system and even the car necessary to finish better than in the back of the pack. Patrick wants to reward their faith in her.
“It’s really cool when you have teammates that are unconditional like that, that want to help you,” she said. “And when everyone is better and we all get better, it pumps the team up and everybody wants it even more.
“I guarantee you we’re going work even harder now. It’s not just sitting back. We’re going to work harder because we love where we’re at and this is what we work for. When you taste it you don’t want to let it go.”
Patrick’s finish came out of nowhere because there was little to indicate she was building toward any kind of breakthrough. She hadn’t finished better than 22nd in any of her last five races and a brief flirtation with the lead at Talladega ended after she bumped Brad Keselowski.
Patrick and Gibson kept pushing, her Stewart-Haas teammates kept the encouragement coming, and now she has a result worth savoring.
Jeff Gordon, who won his 89th Cup race at Kansas, called Patrick’s performance “impressive.”
“That’s a real testament to her work ethic and her talent, as well as Stewart-Haas,” Gordon said. “Those guys are just really putting out some great race cars right now. She did a great job.”
Patrick (27th) is actually ahead of SHR teammate Kurt Busch (28th) in the standings, a placement rendered almost meaningless by the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. While Busch has struggled the rest of the season, he is pretty much assured of a spot in the Chase field because he has a win.
Patrick’s success is still measured in small steps — though she took a giant leap under the lights at Kansas.
Sara Christian’s fifth-place finish in a 1949 race remains the best for a female driver in NASCAR’s top series.
It seemed fitting Patrick’s burst happened in May.
She challenged for the Indy 500 win as a rookie, becoming the first woman to lead laps while finishing fourth in 2005. She finished a career-best third in 2009.
“I had someone say they get a little sad when May comes, and I’m not (in Indy),” she said. “I said, ‘You know, there’s so many great memories.’ Times change, things change, and I’m really happy where I’m at and proud of the progress we made. But I never forget Indy. Ever.”
She won’t forget Kansas any time soon.