Danica relegated to 40th place

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Running 21st on Lap 145, Danica Patrick was caught in a 12-car accident, slamming hard into the wall and ending her day early.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Gibson keyed his radio and called Danica Patrick. She didn't respond. And it worried him.

Patrick had been running 21st on Lap 145 of the Daytona 500 on Sunday when a 12-car accident sent Aric Almirola into her No. 10 Chevrolet. It veered hard into the wall at a potentially devastating 45-degree angle, against a section of the retaining wall not protected by a steel and foam barrier designed to mitigate impacts. The entire front section of Patrick's car had crumpled and began spewing steam.

Gibson called again. Patrick was fine, she said, but soaking in water.

"It scares you when you see that kind of stuff," Gibson said after Patrick was relegated to a 40th-place finish. "It made me nervous. It's the worst kind of hit you can take right there.

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Danica Patrick's car hit an unprotected part of the wall at a potentially devastating angle, but she said she was fine.

"I know she's banged up pretty good. So as long as she is OK, that's all that matters."

Patrick was evaluated and released from the infield care center. Her faraway stare seemed to convey a mix of frustration and residue of a wicked wallop.

"It's been a really long day," she said. "I can't wait to get to Phoenix and try and do better. Been at Daytona a lot and it sucks to end it like this, but we will go to Phoenix and try to rebound and get the momentum built up."

The crash ended an eventful day and unfulfilling Speedweeks for Patrick. After winning the pole and finishing eighth in the Daytona 500 last year, she should have entered her third installment of NASCAR's greatest race with a pleasant storyline. That ended after retired Hall of Famer Richard Petty impugned her racing ability and said she was incapable of winning at NASCAR's highest level.

She handled that potential pitfall deftly -- being noted in a Boston Globe manners blog -- even after team owner/teammate Tony Stewart stoked the embers of the controversy by firing back at "The King."

But her on-track performance left her wanting from the outset of Speedweeks, as she was involved in a multicar wreck in the non-points Sprint Unlimited exhibition and suffered a blown engine in an early practice. That failure required an unapproved engine change and sent her to the back of the field for both the 150-mile qualifying races and the Daytona 500. She was a middling 19th in the Nationwide race on Saturday.

Trouble began quickly Sunday, as she sustained a flat tire, was sideswiped on pit road by Marcos Ambrose and threw her team off pit sequence late in the race after sliding her tires attempting to slow to pit road speed.

Everything was going pretty decent there. We had a really good car. We led a little bit there. We got a little bit behind on that last stop. ... We recouped from that and caught back up to the pack. Just got caught up in somebody else's mess. The product of this deal.
Tony Gibson

After a six-hour, 21-minute rain delay, she was running in the middle of the track coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 145 when the 12-car incident began with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick sending Brian Scott up into Aric Almirola. The impact on the front right corner of the No. 14 Chevrolet shot Patrick across the short chute and hard into the wall.

In an odd coincidence, both Ambrose and Almirola drive for Richard Petty Motorsports.

The highlight for Patrick was leading two laps during a green-flag pit sequence.

"Everything was going pretty decent there," Gibson said. "We had a really good car. We led a little bit there. We got a little bit behind on that last stop. We were going to do two (tires) and kind of slide the tires a little bit and ended up having to change four. We recouped from that and caught back up to the pack.

"Just got caught up in somebody else's mess. The product of this deal."

Patrick's Daytona 500 was typically surreal, though not as successful as last season, when onlookers had to be herded off pit road and a few stragglers stretched cameras to the end of her window for photographs as engines fired. On Sunday, two-time race-winner/television analyst Michael Waltrip burst in as Patrick posed for a photograph with guests of her sponsor. After Stewart stopped by for a brief chat and Patrick began donning her equipment, one of her media managers deftly fended off the possible future governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, as he attempted to steal in for a word.

Patrick had alliances with power brokers when the race began, as Stewart -- who lost an engine in the same practice as Patrick -- began in the back, also, with Harvick, who had failed an inspection. Defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, riding out laps for a late charge, was also willing to work with SHR's drivers, whose teams lease engines from his Hendrick Motorsports.

Stewart experienced power problems from the outset, forcing a change of tack and Patrick was able to recover from draft dumps on multiple occasions to typically stand in the upper teens in the running order. She was set to finish the race with one more pit stop.

"Before the rain delay it was us, [Johnson] and [Stewart] and it was going good," Gibson said. " ... And then we were pitting with the [eventual race-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.] and [Johnson] because we were on their fuel strategy. But we got a little behind when we slid the tires a little bit or else we would have come out right with those guys. It worked out OK. We made it back up. I don't know how it would have turned out at the end, but the mistakes that were happening we were able to get over, so that's good."

How Patrick gets over a morose Speedweeks now emerges as a key to her season. The afterglow was brief last season. Now she must recover from the potential hard hit to her confidence and find footing quickly as the weekly grind of the 36-race schedule proceeds.

"It's hard to make up Daytona," Gibson said. "But it can be done."

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