Danica Patrick's Sixth At Atlanta Ties Janet Guthrie's Best Finish
Danica Patrick's career as a NASCAR driver may have evolved again Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Or at least it made a statistical improvement.
The second-year Sprint Cup driver rebounded from a 27th qualifying spot and twice being lapped to claim a career-best sixth-place finish on a final green/white/checkered finish. The finish tied the best ever produced by trailblazer Janet Guthrie, who was sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977, the highest finish by a woman in the modern era. Sara Christian finished fifth at Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh in 1949.
The result marked the second time this season Patrick set a new standard, improving upon her seventh-place result in May at Kansas Speedway. And this one came in the throes of a late-season tussle for postseason positioning in which Patrick suddenly became far more than a bystander.
Three of Patrick's four top-10s at NASCAR's highest level have come this season, and her top two career finishes have come in her last 15 races. But a dismal slog in which she has finished 20th or worse in five of her last seven races had tempered any perception of building momentum.
"Since that solid run at Kansas, we've been so much faster, but whether it's something fails or I make a mistake or there's an accident -- there were so many things that just kept putting us out of contention and wrecking our weekends-- and this weekend we didn't have that," she said. "We've all been waiting for a weekend like this with all we've been going through lately."
Crew chief Tony Gibson, who enabled Patrick's march through the field with a key midrace adjustment, had asserted after the Kansas finish that his driver needed to make her next evolution before the season was over. He said a win was possible, and he was serious. But a steady occupation of the top 10 was a must, he said. And he stressed that vigilance from the entire team -- driver, crew chief, pit crew -- was crucial for them to exploit a chance like they had at Kansas.
They did just that on Sunday, as Patrick's crew responded to a caution with three laps remaining by crafting an 11-second pit stop that allowed her to restart seventh on the first attempt at a green/white/checkered finish. She then slinked along the inside line to fourth on the restart as contact between Paul Menard and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick prompted an immediate caution.
Patrick was briefly overrun on the subsequent restart but recovered for sixth. In the new system to seed NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Patrick finished 1.543 seconds from qualifying for the 10-race postseason as a race winner.
"I was running a solid top 10 when the yellow came out, so I wasn't necessarily looking for the yellow," Patrick said. "But you know what, you can't move up unless you have something like that to present the opportunity. Came away with something even better than we were running."