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Saturday, November 17, 2012
Pit strategy seems to backfire on Danica Patrick

By Brant James

HOMESTEAD, Fla.  And now, on to the Show.

Danica Patrick's first full NASCAR season concluded Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the former IndyCar driver slated for a full-time Sprint Cup campaign with Stewart-Haas Racing next year finished 13th in the final Nationwide race of the season.

In the process she produced the highest final points finish -- 10th -- for a female in NASCAR history. Sara Christian was 13th in the Sprint Cup precursor Strictly Stock Series in 1949.

Patrick finished her first full stock car season with four top-10 finishes but failed to produce a top 5 as she did last season when her fourth at Las Vegas set a series record for females. She won her only pole in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, which she quickly attributed to former crew chief Tony Eury Jr., and his JR Motorsports team.

Top-five chances were elusive in 2012, with her best finish of the season eighth at Texas, and, she noted, it would have been satisfying to have held onto fourth place at Road America. Instead, she was pushed off the track by Jacques Villeneuve while running fourth on the last lap.

Crew chief Ryan Pemberton said he had been impressed with the progress made in his seven races with Patrick after Eury left the team.

"She keeps improving," he said. "What she needs to do is just race more."

In a season of immersive learning and at times, holding on, Patrick led four laps under caution Saturday when Pemberton opted for an alternate pit strategy. And then she held on.

"You have a herd of wild horses behind you with really sticky tires. I mean good hooves, I don't know," Patrick said after the race, whimsically. "It just gets a little intimidating when you know everyone else had good tires and I had 20 (laps) on mine, or whatever. It's all right, character-building."

Patrick, who led just 41 laps this season, took counsel from her spotter on which lane to choose for the restart, but it didn't matter. After the green flag waved on Lap 98 of 200 she was quickly over-run, plummeting 17 spots within six laps. She had expressed doubts about the strategy when Pemberton announced it, saying her crew chief was "making me pretty nervous here."

"When I raced up to top 10 and we could take tires, we could stay on strategy with everyone else ... maybe," she pondered after the race. "We stay out, and I was a little nervous about that, because literally the whole field pitted. We ended up pitting on the next one, so I'm not sure why we stayed out, but anyway it doesn't matter.

"I think when you're in a position where I'm in, where you're not going to run up into the top 5 and you just need to play it safe, you take chances, that's all."

Pemberton said the No. 7 Chevrolet was not as good as he hoped, forcing him to be more aggressive on strategy. He was also hoping to save a set of tires.

Patrick fell two laps down pitting later but was able to recoup one on her own and another as the beneficiary on a Lap 175 caution, then used a four-tire stop to climb back to 13th in the final laps. She had begun the race 14th but was unhappy with the grip and the handling throughout, racing in the mid-teens until Pemberton made his tire game, staying out on tires with 15 laps on them.

"We were in a better situation than some there," he said. "There were guys who were lined up behind us, who had come in for gas only. We had better tires than they did at that time. The car just wasn't good enough today. I tried to push the issue a little bit today on pit calls. It worked out about where it was supposed to."