Danica's Dozen: Las Vegas recap

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR
Coming off strong runs at Daytona and Phoenix, Danica Patrick achieved not only a career-best finish at Las Vegas, but made history in the process. The promise she showed at the track a year ago was fulfilled at Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300 Nationwide race. After going two laps down at one point, Patrick fought her way back to finish 4th, the highest finish for a female driver in the history of the sport.

Patrick, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and the No. 7 Go Daddy team had been looking forward to returning to Las Vegas. The 1.5-mile oval was one of three intermediate tracks, along with Charlotte and Homestead, where Patrick had shown progress in 2010.

One year ago in only her third Nationwide start, Patrick started 28th, moved up seven spots in the first seven laps and ran as high as third during a pit cycle. But contact between her and Michael McDowell caused the two to wreck, ending Patrick’s day and leaving her with a 32nd-place finish.

Patrick made the return trip to Las Vegas with a 14th-place at Daytona and a 17th-place at Phoenix under her belt, her best finishes yet in her short Nationwide career. Both were stark improvements over her first time at the two tracks, and Patrick hoped the trend would continue at Las Vegas.

An extra day of practice last Thursday gave her more seat time, as well as additional time to soak up the advice from her driving coach Johnny Benson. The Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series champion worked with Patrick at Phoenix and will continue to work with her through Bristol. Out of the 30 teams or so who participated in the extra practice sessions, Patrick was 11th quickest in the first practice and 15th quickest in the second.

On Friday, Patrick and JR Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola reported their racecars were tight. Patrick was 20th fastest in the third practice and hoped to find some speed in the final practice. Patrick got more than she bargained for when she spun out in turn 1. In an impressive save, Patrick straightened out the wheel and kept the car off the wall. Benson explained on the scanner that the arc she took into the turn was too big.

After going to the garage, Patrick came back out to put down a few more laps on the track. She explained in a TV interview that she didn’t have a lot of time to think about it: "You’ve got to get back out there, make sure the car is not too loose” for qualifying. Patrick’s laps after the spin were some of her quickest of the day, and she ended final practice 14th fastest.

Nationwide practice may have been over, but the learning didn’t stop for Patrick. During Sprint Cup practice, she listened to the radio communications between five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus on top of the No. 48 pit box. Patrick said she and Knaus are friends, and Knaus had invited her to listen in, saying “we’ve got a headset for you.” This gave Patrick the opportunity to listen how Johnson reported what his car was doing, as well as note the kind of things she should be looking for.

Race day
Patrick qualified 22nd for Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300, improving on her 28th starting spot from last year. After the green flag dropped, Patrick was unable to make much headway in the opening laps. When Josh Wise brought out a caution on lap 4, Patrick restarted 23rd but moved up nine spots by lap 35, passing more cars than anyone since the race restarted. Her crew told her she was running “top-10 lap times.”

Although Patrick was fast, Kyle Busch was outpacing everyone and put her a lap down on lap 46. Patrick was running 13th when a caution came out on lap 65 for fluid on the track. At first, the team was going to pit, but then changed their minds to take the wavearound and get Patrick back on the lead lap. The pitting strategy would work out in the team’s favor by the end of the race, though not without some tribulations beforehand.

Patrick restarted 11th. Because she didn’t pit during the caution, she had to come in for a green-flag stop on lap 96, putting her one lap down again. However, the caution brought out by Donnie Neuberger put her two laps down. Patrick was frustrated – “We could've pitted on that last caution and stayed on that strategy," she radioed to her crew. Patrick took the wavearound, getting one of her laps back and restarting 17th. After Neuberger brought out another spin 30 laps or so later, Patrick reported the car was loose, but that it could get better when the tires cooled down.

Patrick was able to get through a multi-vehicle wreck that ensnared Kyle Busch. When the caution came out, her team decided to take another gamble and not pit. Patrick restarted 16th, one lap down. While she was racing Ryan Truex for the lucky dog position on lap 168, Steve Wallace made contact with Truex and they wrecked. Patrick missed the wreck right next to her and got the free pass.

Back on the lead lap, Patrick restarted 15th. From there, Patrick used the side-drafting technique she learned at Fontana last year to march toward the front. She passed Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne for 11th and with 23 laps left broke into the top 10. Patrick moved up to eighth when Denny Hamlin pitted. As the race was winding down, fuel strategy came into play and a few more cars in front of Patrick pitted. With 10 laps to go Patrick moved into fourth and that’s where she crossed the finish line - and into history.

Patrick’s 4th-place finish was a career best in 16 Nationwide starts; it was also her second finish on the lead lap. But Patrick also set a milestone: she bested Sara Christian’s 5th-place finish at Heidelberg Raceway in 1949 to become the highest-finishing woman in NASCAR history.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
Although Patrick benefited from fuel mileage strategy, her finish was no fluke. Las Vegas was Patrick’s most competitive race yet; she passed several cars to charge into the top 10, and that’s where she would have finished regardless had fuel mileage not been a factor. In two of the three Nationwide races run this season, Patrick outran her more experienced teammate Almirola (who finished 15th and two laps down at Las Vegas).

Las Vegas is the fourth track where Patrick has shown substantial improvement in her second visit. With every race, Patrick seems more comfortable in the racecar and demonstrates an increased awareness of what the car is doing. She has become more knowledgeable about how the car behaves during a fuel run. The scanner comment she made about the car getting better when the tires cooled down is not one she would have made a year ago.

Patrick is also using more NASCAR lingo. In recent interviews, she has described her racecar as loose or tight instead of “oversteer” or “understeer,” the IndyCar terms for those conditions that Patrick used more frequently when she first came over to NASCAR. This also indicates she is more comfortable behind the wheel of a stockcar.

As far as Patrick has come in just 16 starts, though, she is still learning in her transition to NASCAR. She continues to rely on directions from her spotter to line up for restarts, and she has said herself she is still adjusting to the procedure of where to take the car after completing her qualifying laps (it’s different in IndyCar). With one more Nationwide race before she returns to IndyCar, Patrick will face her next test: Bristol.

Up next
The Nationwide Series is off this week and will return March 19 at the concrete bullring known as Bristol. This will be Patrick’s first time at the 0.5-mile high-banked short track. Bristol will be likely be difficult for Patrick, as she has struggled on the short 1-mile ovals. Her best result on this kind of track came at Phoenix (17th). However, she has the momentum and confidence from her last three finishes, especially the 4th place at Las Vegas, in her favor.

Patrick has said that her expectations are to finish the race and not end up more than 10 laps down. In a recent interview on NASCAR Now, Patrick said Bristol would be "a good reality check. I'm still working, I still have a long way to go" in her stockcar education.
Danica's Dozen: Las Vegas recap Danica's Dozen: Las Vegas recap Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Thursday, March 10, 2011 Rating: 5