Danica Patrick makes strides at Martinsville

Clint Bowyer paid Danica Patrick plenty of compliments Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. The best might have been that she made several of her competitors angry.

A 12th-place finish for a Sprint Cup rookie in her first start on the menacing .526-mile track is sound enough. Factor in that Patrick -- who qualified 32nd -- had to start from the back because of an engine change, was spun out early after contact with Ken Schrader and fell two laps down, and her result is borderline remarkable. And for her competitors, acknowledgeable.

"I got behind Danica, and I couldn't pass her," Bowyer said.

"That's a huge compliment," she responded.

That she was involved in a final-lap tussle with Brian Vickers simply completed a weekend on one of NASCAR's signature tracks. Patrick's rookie of the year rival and boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished 25th.

Positive reviews began pouring in immediately after the race, including as she and second-place finisher Bowyer were beginning an interview session.

"She came a long way from yesterday," said Bowyer, referring to Patrick's qualifying position. "She was extremely fast."

Patrick had said earlier this weekend she expected her first experience at Martinsville to be "really challenging and probably a little overwhelming." So did crew chief Tony Gibson, who admitted after the race, "I figured if we could finish top 25 and be a couple of laps down, it would be a miracle.

I figured if we could finish top 25 and be a couple of laps down, it would be a miracle. I knew after Saturday and Friday that we had a good car. I knew she was capable of doing it, as far as speedwise and driving. To be able to go through all that beating and banging and survive and finish 12th -- she did a great job.
Tony Gibson

"I knew after Saturday and Friday that we had a good car. I knew she was capable of doing it, as far as speedwise and driving. To be able to go through all that beating and banging and survive and finish 12th -- she did a great job."

The 12th-place finish was the second-best of Patrick's career at NASCAR's highest level, behind only her eighth-place in the season-opening Daytona 500. That it came at one of the sport's most bedeviling venues seemed to add to the satisfaction, if not relief, as Patrick has finished no better than 26th since Daytona. Since finishing 39th in the second race of the season, however, she has improved her final result in each race.

"You know, it was just nice to have a good weekend after having so many that weren't good since Daytona," she said. "Yeah, it was a fun little track. I was told that if it goes well, you'll be like, 'I don't mind this place at all. Let's come back,' and if it doesn't you don't ever want to see it again.

"Today was one of those days I had a good car, and [crew chief Tony] Gibson has got a good track record here. Obviously [Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan] Newman won this race last year, and he's always run really well."

Her race did not begin well, as she appeared to be pinched down into a corner by veteran Ken Schrader and spun out on Lap 15 of 500. Patrick fell as much as two laps down but began to slowly work back through the field, climbing to 23rd on Lap 270 and onto the edge of the lead lap on Lap 308. By Lap 404 she had nearly pierced the top 20.

Patrick's race was injected with some short-track aggression again on Lap 466 when it appeared she was nudged by Vickers, sending her No. 10 Chevrolet into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet and causing it to spin out.

"I wasn't trying to lose any friends out there, that's for sure," she said. "It was tight, like it is, bumper to bumper, and I just got hit from behind. Yeah, 55 found my bumper again at the end. You know, it's Martinsville, right. Three wide, coming to the start finish line, it's all exciting.

Gibson said the late aggression was "great to see."

"I was worried about that," he said. "I knew that with 30 to go, the restarts were going to get more and more aggressive, and that's why I told her it's not going to get any easier. I was really, really happy to see how aggressive she got, you know, being able to be on the defense. They would bump her, and she wouldn't get flustered."

Patrick was 11th in the final laps but was sent up the track by a Vickers' push. Vickers was later dumped by Kevin Harvick, who next season will join SHR as one of Patrick's teammates.

"[Patrick] and I were racing pretty hard," Vickers said. "I got to her and got under her several times and she ran me down in the marbles, ran me across the curb, was blocking pretty bad, so I put the bumper to her a little bit.

"If you're going to run me across the curb, then you have to expect to get the same in return. We raced hard all day and we raced clean with a lot of people. I would say I did the same with Danica. I didn't try to wreck her.''

Patrick said she wasn't sure what happened in the final incident.

"She pissed off two or three guys, I think," Bowyer said, suggesting she had earned a badge of honor.

"Me, I probably did," she said.

In short-track racing, that's progress.

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