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CONCORD, N.C. — Regardless of what you think of Danica Patrick's ability to drive a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car, these are the facts:

-- In the most recent points race, at Kansas Speedway, Patrick finished a career-best seventh.

-- Patrick qualified fourth for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, her best starting spot at a downforce track.

-- In Saturday's final practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Patrick was third-fastest and had the third-best 10-consecutive lap average — behind only three-time Coke 600 winner Jimmie Johnson and two-time winner Kevin Harvick.

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What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Perhaps it's just a short burst of long-awaited performance from a driver who hasn't lived up to most people's expectations, much less her own.

But the more intriguing possibility is Patrick's newfound momentum is a sign she's turned the corner and elevated herself to the kind of driver who can contend for victories.

If the latter is true, then Charlotte could realistically be the site of a breakthrough.

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For years, Patrick was the star of that other Memorial Day Weekend race — the Indianapolis 500. She had six top-10 finishes in seven Indy 500 starts, including a third-place finish in 2009.

Then she moved to NASCAR full-time, where she's had two quieter Memorial Day Weekends since : 30th in 2012 and 29th in 2013 (plus a silent car ride on the way home last year after crashing with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr.).

The other races haven't been much better.

A few weeks ago, the thought of Patrick achieving even a top-10 at the Coke 600 would have seemed silly. She was a threat to win on restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, sure — but a 1.5-mile track like Charlotte?

Yeah, right.

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But Kansas changed everything. Patrick was solid all weekend, and she's carried the momentum right into Charlotte. Her confidence is high and there's reason to believe a top-five finish — and, yes, maybe even a win — is possible.

If anything, her excellent qualifying effort (she also was fastest in the second round of knockout qualifying) embodied Patrick's improvement this season.

Last year, Patrick's average starting position was 30.1. This season, it's jumped to 22.3.

"We have a lot to be proud of," she said. "I mean, let's face it: (Qualifying) is the part of the weekend that I dreaded every time. I had to train myself to not say I hate qualifying."

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Patrick has credited a better feel in the car for her newfound success. It drove well enough Thursday that she wasn't fazed by the slippery conditions which prompted handling complaints from other drivers.

"I think one of the things that happens when your team gives you a really good race car is you don't notice the track being off as much," she said. "It never feels super low grip. Even in the heat of the day, I told the guys, 'I really honestly don't feel like the grip level is all that much different than when we were here last weekend for the All-Star weekend and it was far cooler.'

"That is a product of good race cars and they have a lot to be proud of at the shop."

It remains to be seen whether all that will translate into results. But Patrick's style — she's known for taking good care of her equipment and running a steady race — could serve her well in NASCAR's longest event, where attrition is often a factor.

But as Patrick said prior to the weekend in a team statement, it's important to keep expectations in check and not get carried away. After all, she has just one top-five finish in 118 combined starts between the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series.

"We have to remember that there is a process to it," she said. "We skipped over top-15s and went straight to top-10s. Shoot, we pretty much skipped over top-20s and didn't have many of those, either.

"It definitely gives confidence, it's definitely a good sign and definitely good to have those races. We just hope to have them more often."

Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck

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