Danica's Dozen: Phoenix recap

John Sommers II/Getty Images for NASCAR
After jumping into the NASCAR pool last year, IndyCar star Danica Patrick entered her second season of Nationwide Series competition in 2011, driving the No. 7 Go Daddy Chevrolet Impala for JR Motorsports. Patrick will compete in 12 Nationwide races this season after running 13 events last year. For the remainder of Patrick's races, check back here at Skirts and Scuffs for a recap of her day.

After achieving a career-best finish at Daytona, Danica Patrick faced the latest test in her stockcar education last weekend at Phoenix. Having struggled on short ovals last year in the Nationwide Series, the IndyCar driver put together a strong run and her most consistent race yet in Saturday’s Bashas’ Supermarkets 200. Patrick finished 17th at the desert track, her second-best finish in 15 series starts in the No. 7 Go Daddy Chevrolet Impala for JR Motorsports.

The 1-mile track was one of three short ovals Patrick competed on in 2010 – along with New Hampshire and Dover – where the driver of the No. 7 noticeably struggled. But Phoenix had been particularly brutal. During the November race, Patrick made contact with several cars and ended up in the wall. When Patrick returned to the track after extensive repairs to the No. 7, her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., encouraged her to stand up for herself on the track and bump back. After starting 28th, Patrick finished 32nd, seven laps down.

Fast forward to 2011. Upon her second trip to Phoenix, Patrick was riding a wave of confidence after Daytona. She became the first woman to lead a lap at the superspeedway and finished 14th after running in the top 12 for much of the race. Patrick, who resides in the Phoenix area, looked to build on her progress in the desert.

Perhaps recognizing her struggles on short tracks, JRM asked Johnny Benson, the 2008 Camping World Truck Series champion, to coach Patrick at Phoenix. Under Benson’s guidance, Patrick altered her line in the Nationwide practices and picked up speed. She went from 24th quickest in the first practice to 19th fastest in the second.

Then it was on to qualifying, where Patrick has been making gains in her short NASCAR career. With a lap of 129.236 mph (27.856 seconds), Patrick qualified in the 20th position, five spots ahead of JRM teammate Aric Almirola in the No. 88.

With the drop of the green flag Saturday, Patrick ran a steady race. She moved up a spot on the first lap and was running in 18th before being lapped by Kyle Busch on lap 43. Busch set a fast and furious pace as race leader, going on to lead all 200 laps of the event.

When the first caution came out on lap 53, Patrick missed receiving the lucky dog by one position and apologized to her crew. Her teammate Almirola was the beneficiary. On lap 65, Michael Annett nudged Patrick’s rear bumper and got her a little loose as he made the pass for 18th. Patrick fell back and within 30 laps was riding in 20th.

After a caution for the spinning No. 22 of Brad Keselowski on lap 104, Patrick hit pit road and received a wedge adjustment. Patrick restarted in 18th, two laps down, and reported to Eury Jr. that she liked the changes, saying they “feel like a better setup.” On lap 123, Patrick radioed in that she was trying to save her equipment: "It's too hard to pass." Her crew told her she was two spots away from being the lucky dog; in the next 10 laps she moved up to 16th, putting herself in position to receive the free pass.

Patrick was passed by Joe Nemechek for the lucky dog position and on lap 154 went three laps down to leader Busch. After the third and final caution for Trevor Bayne, Patrick and Almirola nearly made contact in the pits but escaped unscathed. Patrick gained back one of her laps and restarted 17th, but was lapped again on lap 188. Patrick crossed the finish line of the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 in 17th position, three laps down.

With Saturday’s race, Patrick continues to show improvement when running at a track for the second time, as her return visits to Fontana last fall and Daytona indicated. Patrick also recorded her best finish at a short oval, qualifying well enough to avoid falling off the pace from the get-go.

Her run at Phoenix was in stark contrast to her first visit; Patrick kept the car clean and stayed consistent. During the race, Patrick’s crew told her she was overdriving the corners, so Patrick worked on her corner entry throughout the event. For much of the race Patrick ran within just a few spots of Almirola, and her lap times picked up by the end.

As Patrick’s only finish on the lead lap remains her 19th-place run at Homestead, challenges remain for the driver of the No. 7 as she makes the transition from the lighter, faster racecars in IndyCar to the bulkier stock cars in NASCAR. But the gains from the last two weeks are going a long way toward her NASCAR education.

“I’ve said all along, if we can continue to see improvements, we’re doing alright. I’m happy to see it over the past two weeks,” Patrick said after Saturday’s race. “I knew Phoenix was going to be a challenge, but it’s good to see us continuing this building process.”

Up next: Patrick is set to run this weekend’s race at Las Vegas, the third of 12 Nationwide races she will compete in this season for JR Motorsports. The Sam’s Town 300 will be Patrick’s second time at the 1.5-mile track in a stock car. At last year’s event, Patrick started 37th and moved up seven spots in the first seven laps. She worked her way up through the field, running as high as third during a pit-stop cycle, until she and Michael McDowell collided on lap 84. The crash resulted in a DNF and a 36th -place finish for Patrick.

Since then, Patrick has had encouraging runs at two other 1.5-mile tracks, Charlotte and Homestead, where she respectively finished 21st and 19th, her two best finishes in 2010. Where Patrick has struggled on short tracks, she has shown promise on intermediates. With the strides made in her last two races, Vegas will be a track to watch as Patrick continues to develop in NASCAR.
Danica's Dozen: Phoenix recap Danica's Dozen: Phoenix recap Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Wednesday, March 02, 2011 Rating: 5