Danica Patrick leaves wreck-marred Daytona with valuable experience

Danica Patrick had a rough weekend at Daytona, but gained experience in the process.
Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
After making the full-time move to NASCAR, Danica Patrick’s highly anticipated Daytona debut looks – on the surface, at least - like a bust. In three races, the former IndyCar driver’s opportunity to show what she can do was cut short by three wrecks. But for a rookie in NASCAR’s top series and its biggest race, the experiences add up to more steps in her stockcar education.

Patrick’s up-and-down weekend started with a jarring wreck during her Duel qualifying race. Then she recovered with a history-making pole run for the Nationwide Series season opener. Patrick’s qualifying run was all the more impressive because it came 24 hours after that hard hit, yet she didn't even flinch when she got in the car.

But then Patrick’s aspirations came to a crashing halt, literally. After a bump-drafting miscue from her JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt, Patrick wrecked just before the race reached halfway. With the Daytona 500 as her final opportunity to finish well, Patrick had no chance to be competitive in Monday’s rain-delayed event when she was caught up in a multi-car wreck on Lap 2. She finished both events in 38th place.

Patrick has shown she can handle bump drafting at Daytona. In her stockcar debut at the 2010 ARCA season opener, Patrick finished an impressive sixth after spinning out earlier in the race. Last year, she became the first woman to lead laps at Daytona in the Nationwide opening event, finishing 14th. In the summer she contended for the win before finishing 10th.

To her credit, none of the three crashes during Speedweeks were her fault. Patrick was a victim of restrictor-plate racing’s unpredictable nature – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though the crashes are what most will remember about Patrick’s entry into NASCAR, the 29-year-old Roscoe, Ill., native showed progress during her rocky introduction to the Sprint Cup Series and learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Don’t believe me? I’ll run through them for you.

Before the last-lap crash that knocked Patrick out of her Duel event, she ran a conservative race in the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. Even though Patrick was guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500, she wanted to keep the car clean and gain the respect of the series’ veterans. She hovered at the rear of the lead pack, conserving her equipment and giving her competitors room. She ran as high as 6th and spent some time in the top 10 before Jamie McMurray squeezed Aric Almirola, forcing Almirola down into Patrick.

Patrick's No. 10 car is towed back to the garage after her hard hit in
the first Duel.
Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
She sustained a vicious hit against the inside wall, forcing her to a backup car for the Daytona 500. But Patrick received praise for taking her hands off the wheel, a move that saved her wrist bones from possible injury.

Of the three races, Saturday’s Nationwide event best shows how competitive Patrick could be. Patrick became the second woman in NASCAR history to start from the pole position, and held the lead for two laps. She brushed the wall early, but fell right back into traffic and sounded unfazed on the scanner.

Patrick’s No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet was fast - so much so that when she was separated from her boss Dale Earnhardt Jr., she sustained momentum even while running by herself. Patrick also worked with a star-studded list of partners. In addition to Earnhardt, she drafted with her Sprint Cup team owner Tony Stewart and Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Patrick ran in the top 10 for 30 of 48 laps before Whitt tapped her right rear bumper, sending her out of line. By that time she had fallen back to 20th place.

Patrick had already expressed concern on her scanner about the lack of team-to-team radio communications, indicating the difficulty of knowing what was happening behind her. In a panicked tone, Patrick could sense trouble was brewing.

"It's pretty chaotic out here," she said a few laps before the crash.

Patrick was clearly comfortable being pushed, but struggled with being the pusher. For the next restrictor-plate race, I’d like to see her practice pushing and increase her comfort level.

As for the wreck itself, ESPN analyst and former NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett said Patrick could have just locked her car down and spun, which would have required only a simple fix, four new tires. Jarrett makes a good point that the car could have been saved – Patrick just needs more experience to learn when and how to do this. Add this onto her list of lessons.

If I were assigning grades for the Daytona 500, I’d have to give Patrick an incomplete because two laps isn’t enough to see how competitive she could have been. Still, Patrick returned to the track 62 laps down to get some much-needed seat time. Though she had no shot at a decent finish, she used the opportunity to work on her radio communication with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, which is always a plus.

I checked Patrick’s lap times not long after she got back on track, and I could see she was running within three-tenths miles per hour of the leaders. Despite massive repairs in the garage, including welded-on parts, Patrick’s car was fast - faster than the 38th-place position to which she was relegated after the wreck.

All good experience for Patrick, who won’t be running another Sprint Cup race until Darlington in May.

“Any lap that I turn is progression, that’s for sure,” Patrick said.

After her trio of wrecks, a circumspect Patrick noted that her best chance to avoid them is running more toward the front of the pack.

“I've got to get further up the grid (because) the further you are up front, the less things happen," Patrick said in a report from NASCAR.com writer Dave Rodman. "Every time the accident happened I was further back in the field. The further up front you are the better off you are - but then again, you need that experience to get further up front, which is what I'm trying to get.”

Patrick starts her campaign for the Nationwide championship in a hole, but it’s important to remember that Daytona and its wild nature are not representative of the whole season. Up next on the schedule is Phoenix, which as a 1-mile oval is more indicative of what lies ahead.

For Patrick, who resides in Phoenix, the desert must be a welcome sight after Daytona. She scored a 17th-place finish here one year ago and finished 21st in the fall.

If Patrick is resilient enough to claim the Nationwide pole after the Duel wreck, then she can certainly bounce back at Phoenix after her crash-marred Daytona weekend.

Danica Patrick leaves wreck-marred Daytona with valuable experience Danica Patrick leaves wreck-marred Daytona with valuable experience Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Friday, March 02, 2012 Rating: 5