The congratulations have poured in from all corners of the world for Danica Patrick, but she's trying to keep her career-best Sprint Cup finish in context.
Just as she did in starting ninth and finishing seventh Saturday while whipping around Kansas Speedway at more than 200 mph, Patrick is taking a methodical approach to her improvement in NASCAR's premier series.
"That's a good way to do it," she told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Tuesday. "Not every weekend goes like that for the best of drivers. The ultimate goal is to be in the top 10 every weekend and then wins and good things happen from there. But I have to be rational and understand I can't just skip past getting in the top 15 consistently and skip to top 10s. That's unrealistic at this point in time.
"But that weekend showed when the car is good enough to do those things, I'm ready."
Patrick, who had only one top 10 (eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500) and five top 15s in 56 prior starts, still could bask in the afterglow. She received glowing text messages from six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR's 11-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as their powerhouse car owner, Rick Hendrick. A group of girlfriends in Scottsdale, Ariz. (her former home) sent a photo of them cheering while watching her in the 5-hour Energy 400, and Twitter was awash with fan support, too.
"Everybody came through and said a lot of really nice things," said Patrick, who was busy Tuesday promoting sponsor Aspen Dental's Healthy Mouth Movement and MouthMobile that provides free dental care in communities that lack it. "Sponsors, partners, friends. It was a good night. It's a confidence-builder for sure. I spent a lot of time running around some really good cars. It was really cool."
PHOTOS: Danica Patrick through the years
It's been another great May so far for Patrick, who became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and has a career-best third in that Memorial Day weekend classic. She and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who drives for rival Roush Fenway Racing in Cup) recently added a Miniature Siberian Husky named Dallas to Stenhouse's new house in the Charlotte area.
Patrick and Stenhouse have been using social media to post photos of the 2-month-old puppy, which they got Sunday -- Mother's Day. The Miniature Siberian Husky is relatively new with only a handful of breeders in the country. Dallas came from one in Asheville, N.C.
"Isn't she the cutest thing you've ever seen? Gosh!" Patrick said with a giggle. "She's learning how to do everything so quick. Within one day, she went from biting on a rope when I gave it to her to playing with it on her own and playing tug of war.
"She sleeps all day and she's up all night, so she's just like Ricky. Even though we agreed that he's the up all night guy, so he can take care of the puppy at night. But who takes her out at 4 o'clock in the morning every night? Me. He said, 'Well babe, once I get to sleep, then I'm asleep.' I said, 'Well, that's not how it works.' "
She has tweeted photos of their new pup, including these:
--"She didn't take nine months to make, but we do love our new little Dallas."
--"She's so sweet. Just like a baby, eats, sleeps, plays. And was up every 2-3 hours last night. And I don't even mind!"
--"Had to fly out early for @AspenDental and @StenhouseJr said Dallas slept next to my pjs cuz she misses me! Awwww!"
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Patrick touched on her impressive performance at Kansas, her Indy 500 connections and her charitable efforts:
Q: This finish seemed to come somewhat out of nowhere as you hadn't finished higher than 22nd in nearly two months. Was there a "eureka" moment for you at Kansas when it clicked?
A: Before qualifying, (Stewart-Haas Racing teammates) Kevin (Harvick) and Kurt (Busch) were really helpful and giving me tips. It goes a long way. It really does. That's what really helped me in qualifying. From there, it was about (crew chief Tony) Gibson making decisions that we had talked about what we wanted to get the car right. The cars are very sensitive to being a little off. They did a really good job. It's about getting everything right. It's a complicated process to nail. They made good changes. The race was just a matter of having good restarts and keeping my head on straight and being confident to give good feedback. It was just a good night all around.
The short-version answer is my teammates helped me a lot in qualifying, and Gibson made good decisions on what to do with the car for the race.
Sprint Cup is so hard. It is so hard. This just shows how important it is to be great at everything. Everything has to be awesome, from the car to the engine to the driver to the calls to the setup. You have to nail it. It's hard to do that every weekend, for sure. (Kansas) just shows when you put the effort in, good things happen.
Q: Have you talked to Kurt Busch about his Indianapolis 500 attempt and does that help keep you connected to the race?
A: Kurt expressed curiosity at Richmond, and he wanted to sit down and talk at length about closing rates and stuff like that. We talked a few minutes, but we had just arrived at an appearance. He's definitely curious about a few things. I'm happy to help with anything I thought could help him.
Of course I care and still am curious about Indy. I'm not someone who walked away thinking, 'I don't want a thing to do with it.' I like racing. The start of (Saturday's Grand Prix of Indianapolis), while not good, it was dramatic. For someone watching a race for entertainment, it was surely entertaining, though I felt bad for Sebastian (Saavedra, the pole-sitter who couldn't get his engine fired and was rear-ended by two other drivers, ending his day). But yeah. I watch every chance I can get. By nature, I'm going to lose touch with what's going on and the stuff about cars and drivers, but I still watch it like a fan.
Q: Does Busch's shot at Indy make you think, "Hey, two of my NASCAR teammates have tried this. Maybe I can?"
A: I never say never, because you just never know what's going to happen in your life. But at this point, I'm not seeking it. But it doesn't mean it might not seek me out at some point in time. I'm open. But right now, my focus is Cup.
Q: You've got a new sponsor this season in Aspen Dental, and you're acting as a spokeswoman for its Healthy Mouth Movement and something called the MouthMobile. What is it?
A: It's free oral health care. They travel especially to places for people who don't have a dentist nearby. ... They had talked about the MouthMobile and the Healthy Mouth Movement, but it's a whole other thing to do it. To see it all come together and get the dentist's office on wheels moving is quite the undertaking.
I'm going back to Roscoe, my hometown, with the MouthMobile after the Chicagoland Speedway race. They might even come to Indianapolis during the Brickyard.
Q: Many drivers have foundations; are you planning on doing your own for charitable efforts?
A: When I first started in IndyCar, I created a foundation and then realized it was going to be a lot of red tape and a lot of money had to flow through it, and it just all seemed very difficult. So it was dissolved pretty much immediately after being put together. So since then, I always thought about it, and I've realized the easiest thing I can do is help other people with their charities -- show up at golf tournaments and charity dinners and bid on auction items to help drive the price up. Or shoot, I'll buy them myself, I don't care. There's already a lot of great stuff that drivers and other companies have going on for their charitable causes. Participating and attending those is the biggest thing for me. There's a lot of that coming up.
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