Danica Patrick plays it safe in Duels

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Danica Patrick fell back from the start and finished 17th but, more important, kept her fast car intact.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Speedweeks began abuzz for Danica Patrick with questions about her relationship with a fellow driver. The pitch increased when she led the second Sprint Cup practice session. The national needle oscillated when she became the first female to win a pole at NASCAR's highest level Sunday.

Patrick did not budge that needle Thursday in one of two 150-mile qualifying races that set the starting grid for the Daytona 500. And that was a very good thing.

Her spot on the front row already secured by the complicated rules used to determine the field, Patrick had nothing to gain but knowledge and much to lose -- most obviously a sleek-fast No. 10 Chevrolet. She slogged through a lunch-pail afternoon that was decidedly less tantalizing by the second after boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stole in through a crowd to sneak a hug before the race.

I hate coming to the end like that and just lagging back there. That's not fun.
Danica Patrick

"Basically, we kind of used this one like a test session," said Patrick, who has made just 10 Sprint Cup starts as she embarks on a first full season in the series.

There were lessons learned in finishing 17th. The top racing line is apparently faster and is the preferred route around the 2.5-mile, high-banked track. Passing is difficult in the new "Gen 6" race car, a point bolstered by five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who leaned over Patrick's car after the race for a brief chat.

Her car is fast but needs a freer setup. And a year after being involved in a hard Duels crash and wrecks in the Nationwide race and Daytona 500, Patrick learned that gaining experience can be dull.

"I hate coming to the end like that and just lagging back there," she said of a final restart when she hovered in the back to protect her car from any late wrecks. "That's not fun, but it's also really ignorant to drive up to the pack and be part of an accident for absolutely no reason. You're not going to learn much there."

As for whom she would draft with beyond her Stewart-Haas racing team, that remains a mystery.

"Normally you make the kind of friends you want when you're running up front and pulling people along. You're fast, and I want to go with you," she said.

Crew chief Tony Gibson said the obvious speed of the No. 10 Chevrolet would produce numerous suitors, although rookies are commonly avoided until they can prove themselves in the high-speed, aerodynamic exercise that is restrictor-plate racing.

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At the start of the race, Danica Patrick was leader of the pack, and there was some value in that sensation, her crew chief said.

"I think if you've got a fast race car, anybody is going to draft with you," he said. "That's just how this deal works. If you've got a fast car and can move forward, they're going to use you as a pick to pull 'em and push 'em and all that. If our car's fast, anybody will draft with us.''

Patrick was overtaken by 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne on the first lap and was slowly engulfed by the field of 23, settling into the back to ride out the 60-lap event with team owner and teammate Tony Stewart.

Gibson said a conservative setup made Patrick's car too hard to turn from the outset and hindered her speed. She was unable to determine what her speed was by the team's first pit stop, when a faulty tachometer was reading 10,000 rpms, a figure that likely would have signaled a terminal engine problem if accurate.

Patrick raced as high as 14th before pitting after a caution in the final five laps and settling in to 17th.

"We really just wanted to run 10 or 15 laps and be in the pack, be up front," Gibson said. "We were hoping [Patrick] and [Stewart] would push out there, and they would get single file on the bottom. But once we got into a kind of stalemate there and the inside line wasn't moving, it was time to get out of there."

Gibson said Patrick was able to "drop back at will and suck back up there at will," in the draft, which would portend well for the Daytona 500. Pole-sitters have the option of starting on the inside or outside row, and Patrick took the low line Thursday, Gibson said, because Stewart was behind her. With the top line emerging as the advancers' line, Gibson may opt for the outside spot Sunday.

There also was value, he said, in simulating the sensation of leading the field to the green flag at Daytona International Speedway with a pack of ambitious drivers behind her.

"There's a lot of value in it," he said. "For her, knowing the car was rock solid, probably too solid, that we have plenty of speed … I think she's going to race really well."

And that would be infinitely more exciting for both of them.

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