DARLINGTON, S.C. >> Danica Patrick is grateful and humbled by the popularity and platform she has had over four seasons of Sprint Cup racing. She desperately wishes for success to go with it.
Patrick expressed frustration this week at her inability so far to become a consistent top-15 finisher.
"I feel a certain amount of responsibility slash guilt when things don't go better," Patrick said. "It's always fun to cheer when someone is doing well. There are times I don't feel like I'm delivering that.
"I want to give them something to cheer for," she said.
The hard-driving Patrick remains one of the series' most popular and marketable figures. When Go Daddy ended its sponsorship of Patrick's Stewart-Haas Racing car, Nature's Bakery quickly took over as primary backer this season. Patrick enjoys seeing young girls at races in her T-shirts and understands she has probably convinced plenty of dads it's okay to let their daughters dream and pursue racing glory.
Now, after almost four seasons of mostly middle-of-the-pack finishes, she wants some for herself.
Patrick had success in open wheel racing, winning the Indy Japan 300 in 2008. She jumped to NASCAR and the new Stewart-Haas program after 2010, cutting her teeth in the Xfinity Series with a few tries in Sprint Cup before making the full-time jump in 2013.
But things haven't always gone well for the ultra-competitive Patrick.
She had a career-best finish of sixth in 2014 in Atlanta, but has not qualified for NASCAR's season-ending playoffs or ended better than 24th in the driver standings. Patrick sits 24th again this season without a top 10-finish with five races left before the championship Chase.
"We're in that phase now where we're finishing 20th every weekend and I wish I were delivering more," she said.
Team owner Tony Stewart told Patrick when she joined NASCAR it would take longer than she thought to get up to speed.
Is she getting close?
"I mean, somedays yes and somedays you are like, 'What happened?"' said Stewart, a three-time series champion who is retiring after the season. "But you look at my career. I was on top and won a championship in 2011 and I couldn't even find the gate to get out of the racetrack in the years after that. So many things can change and it's just not as easy as everybody thinks."
Patrick was in Darlington on Tuesday to show off her culinary skills — she helped prepare lunch at South of Pearl restaurant, complete with a black Darlington apron — and stuff back-to-school backpacks with supplies for area children.
Patrick has her outside interests. She's launching an activewear clothing line next year — "It started because of merchandise sales at NASCAR, drivers make so little money off merchandise sales," she says — and hopes to publish a cookbook of her favorite recipes. She detailed a domestic side, of how she'll wake up first at racetracks to make breakfast for herself, then her dogs, then boyfriend-driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"It's fun for me," she said.
Patrick, 34, has thought about a family and what it might mean for her career. She has seen her friends have children and wondered about it herself.
"Of course, I'm a girl," Patrick said. "But it's not anything in the urgent department yet."
But, she added, "I'm not married and I have a job."
"I'd like to have some great years in NASCAR and I feel like I haven't had them yet," she said.
New Darlington President Kerry Tharp has seen Patrick's poise grow during her NASCAR stint.
"It's a big learning curve coming to stock car racing and she embraced that, wasn't afraid of that and has worked very hard at that," he said.
Patrick will return to the area in a month for the Southern 500, one of the sport's most difficult tracks where she's struggled to get around because of its slippery surface and misshapen corners.
Patrick believes her best performances are ahead and that her communication with her No. 10 team and crew chief Billy Scott are as strong as ever. Her immediate goal is getting fast enough to make the jump to a top-15 finisher. Patrick knows if she accomplishes that, her opportunities to win would increase.
"That would make a huge difference on the overall year," Patrick said. "That can and will happen. But nobody's patient — including me."