Danica Patrick gets third top-10 -- barely
Danica Patrick on Friday characterized the results of her first full Nationwide Series season as disappointing. With four races remaining, expectations, albeit recalibrated after a humbling start to the season, still had not been met.
There had been some fast cars, some encouraging runs, some progress made as she concludes her tutelage with JR Motorsports. But there hadn't, she said, been enough positive results. There needed to be "better things on the record books," she said.
A 10th-place finish Saturday at Kansas Speedway easily could be dismissed as yet another example of the problems experienced by Patrick, original crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and interim chief Ryan Pemberton, in his fourth race since Eury left the team. But ultimately, a race in which pit strategy thrust her into and out of the top of the leaderboard, in which she came from two laps down to as high as second place in the final laps, leaving her feeling a bit cheated, might prove to be one of the most enriching races of her stock car career.
Patrick's top-10 was her third this season, matching her 12-race total from 2011. She was eighth at Texas in April and ninth at Bristol in August.
Patrick appeared in position to at least match her NASCAR record for best finish by a female -- fourth at Las Vegas last spring -- when she burst from sixth to second briefly and back comfortably into fourth on a restart with 25 laps remaining. She couldn't hold the position, however, as a No. 7 Chevrolet she described as "tragically tight" allowed points leader Elliott Sadler, Michael Annett, eventual race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and teammate Cole Whitt to pass before a caution with three laps remaining prompted a green-white-checker finish.
Patrick, who had conserved fuel for the last 35 laps, pitted for fuel and right-side tires under caution but was able to restart 11th as cars in front of her, including Sam Hornish Jr., began running out of fuel. Patrick split a gap created on the restart when Paul Menard's car sputtered, pushing her briefly to seventh, but she was overrun again and finished 10th.
Among the cars ahead of her were those of Whitt (fifth) and Hornish (ninth), who she believed had lined up improperly high in the running order for the restart. Patrick, incredulous, peppered Pemberton about the unwritten and written rules on such matters and whether a protest was in order, but the crew chief sounded skeptical they had any recourse.
That Patrick was even in position to summon such contempt over a top-10 finish was a testament to the way her team recovered after a midrace strategy that failed to resolve itself. Patrick had spurted to fourth with the help of track position gained on a fuel-only stop, and a rapid sequence of cautions prompted Pemberton to skip a yellow-flag stop on Lap 70 with Patrick in need of fuel within 25 laps.
The ensuing lengthy caution-free run forced Patrick to pit under green, dropping her from seventh to 17th and lapped. Menard's coinciding speedy run dropped her two laps down just before the next caution.
"Sorry, it's the bed we made," Pemberton said on team radio.
Patrick sounded exasperated that another above-average performance was apparently about to become statistically mediocre, but she radioed that she agreed with the tactic.
She later used the so-called "wavearound" rule to regain one lap while skipping a pit stop and raced her way into position to rejoin the lead lap with the "beneficiary" rule on Lap 138. The top-scored car one lap down when Derek White sideswiped the wall, she restarted 15th, on the lead lap on Lap 142 of a scheduled 200.
With her car handling to her liking, Patrick locked into one of the most impressive segments of her season, similar in intensity and performance to her late three-wide efforts at Texas Motor Speedway and top-5 positioning for most of the race at Road America. She began picking off positions, sliding down onto the apron to pass Sadler and Ryan Blaney for sixth place with 30 laps remaining.
Spotter Tab Boyd cackled in between instructions, saying, "I tell you what, you're impressing me."
Impressive, if not ultimately the kind of finish Patrick was seeking.
She'll be back on the track Sunday, contesting her eighth of a scheduled 10 Sprint Cup races.