With new crew chief, Danica Patrick 14th
SPARTA, Ky. -- It was five days after her crew chief broke with JR Motorsports, four days after learning Tony Eury Jr.'s replacement would be Ryan Pemberton and just a day after meeting Pemberton in person.
There was no spectacular spike in performance -- although Eury's departure was not about that, according to the team -- but in a 14th-place finish Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, Danica Patrick and Pemberton think they set the foundation for a mutually productive final six races together, hot dog wrappers notwithstanding.
For Patrick, there's the desire for a strong push through the end of her first NASCAR Nationwide season before embarking on an inaugural full-time Sprint Cup campaign next year with Stewart-Haas Racing. For Pemberton, who was initially hired by JR Motorsports to institute fundamental changes as competition director -- leading to the dismissal of Tony Eury Sr., and the mutually agreed-upon departure of his son -- there is a need to fortify a title-contending program.
Saturday was a starting point, even if it was ultimately disappointing.
"These are just the days when you salvage what you can and try to learn from it," said Patrick, who remained 11th in driver points, now 367 behind leader Elliott Sadler and four out of 10th place.
Patrick qualified 11th but struggled with a loose-handling race car for much of the first green-flag segment of the 200-lap race. Pemberton made mass changes to the No. 7 Chevrolet during a competition caution on Lap 30 prompted by heavy rains that washed rubber from the track on Friday night. Patrick was able to run from 16th to 18th for the next 20 laps. A recurrence of the handling issues dropped her to 20th by Lap 55 -- she also barely missed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as his No. 6 Ford swiped the wall -- but a handful of garbage from the stands nearly ended her day on Lap 76.
Patrick pitted 10 laps before her scheduled pit sequence on Lap 76 when her water and oil temperatures spiked near the engine's failure levels at 300 degrees -- "It was about to Chernobyl on me," she said -- and her crew discovered two hot dog wrappers clogging both air intakes at the grille.
Patrick returned 34th and lapped but was able to recoup spots to 25th. She was unable to recover the lead lap, however, and leader Sadler passed to put her two down on Lap 135.
Patrick marveled how the leaders could be so much faster than her race car.
"We just need to get better overall," she said. "We need to be stronger. We need to be faster, and we have to have more to go with."
Patrick lost a chance to gain back a lap when leader and eventual winner Austin Dillon elected not to pit on a Lap 160 caution. Pemberton had hoped to take the wave-around back to one lap down but stopped for fuel and four tires when Dillon's decision took that strategy out of play. Patrick finished two laps down.
"The bar was set a little higher than that," Pemberton said of the result. "Sometimes you can't overcome [problems]. You've got debris on the grille, and you lose an extra lap like that straight at the wrong time in the fuel window. That didn't help things.
"But we're way too loose to start with. It was something I was real concerned with, but not knowing the magnitude of things, I was concerned about it before the race and for good reason. We were loose. Next time I know we need to take a bigger swing."
The communication aspect -- sometimes a time-consuming process between driver and crew chief -- began satisfactorily enough, according to both.
"I think that we have a good idea as to what we need to do going from practice to the race to make sure that we have something underneath us that is going to be good enough to really charge and go," Patrick said, "and I feel like just working together, familiarization of all the simple things can just add up on a weekend."
"It's fine," he said. "I've been doing this a long time. You use the guy's sense of urgency, tone and how far you need to go. Every day you learn a little bit more about somebody."
Day three begins next week.