Late crash drops Danica Patrick to 33rd at Talladega
Danica Patrick knew better. Yes, her past performances on restrictor-plate tracks had underscored her proficiency on NASCAR's biggest, most spectacular stages.
Yes, her Stewart-Haas Racing team had brought to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend the No. 10 Chevrolet she used to become the first female to win a Sprint Cup pole, lead laps under green and finish as high as eighth in the Daytona 500 this February.
But she understood, particularly after her final restart at Daytona -- where she was abandoned in the draft and plummeted from third to eighth -- that the form of aerodynamically dependent pack racing that defines Daytona and Talladega can be as arbitrarily cruel as glorifying.
It's fair to say that there should be a little spike in expectation, but you also have to take into consideration on these big speedways that there is a whole lot of luck that comes into it.Danica Patrick
She said as much on Friday: "It's fair to say that there should be a little spike in expectation, but you also have to take into consideration on these big speedways that there is a whole lot of luck that comes into it."
Luck, at least good luck, was nowhere to be found in the rain and the gloom in Alabama this weekend. Running 13th with six laps left after a lengthy red-flag period, Patrick was collected in a final massive wreck that sent her into the wall and out of the race with a 33rd-place finish. It was the same basic result as Saturday in the Nationwide Series race, it just took several more hours to produce.
Patrick, who qualified 23rd and ran as high as ninth Sunday, was 10th with 10 laps remaining, but for the second time after the resumption, saw her freight train of drafting partners separated. She regrouped at 13th position before fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley triggered the melee with four-wide contact.
During the rain delay, Patrick had lamented her starting position and how it compounded the task of not only advancing but avoiding the inevitable mass crashes endemic to Talladega.
"I was a lot happier to start on the pole at Daytona and just don't drop back and be smart and stay in line," Patrick said, comparing her two plate appearances in Sprint Cup this season during a television interview. "Starting 23rd where I did [on Sunday], you have to try and find your way to the front, and it seemed like I would make progress and all of a sudden it would seem like I was going to get up in the top 10 or 12 or so [and] the line would slow down.
"[I'm] just trying to figure that all out, and sometimes you have to make a new lane or try and help a new lane out, and sometimes I think you just have to stay in line. I'm still learning for sure."
Still, the fact that Patrick made just her second Nationwide Series start at Talladega on Saturday -- again for Turner Scott Motorsports -- reinforced her team's position that her skill in restrictor plate racing is a source of confidence.
Patrick won a Nationwide pole at Daytona last season and finished 13th at Talladega in the series last spring but couldn't replicate that success this time. She started fourth and was wrecked on Lap 14 by teammate and drafting partner Kyle Larson, a highly heralded rookie. Patrick did not return after her car was damaged slamming the wall and sliding through the grass. She finished 39th in a 40-car field.
"Kyle is a great driver," she said. "I've seen him do things I haven't done yet in a stock car. I know he is very good. That was probably [Larson] just not understanding the draft completely and how the cars work when you hook up together."
Patrick narrowly avoided a similar calamity -- and the sliding cars of Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch -- during a 13-car melee on Lap 44 early in the Cup race Sunday, with the help of spotter Brandon Benesch.
She described missing the fray "a lot of luck," and crew chief Tony Gibson was mystified how she avoided the rudderless Busch car that was rolling down the high banks as she was attempting to drive up off the apron.
"We were watching and we were like, 'Holy cow!'" he said. "The next thing you know, she came on the radio and she just aimed for the empty hole. I don't know how she missed [Busch] there at the end. But I'll take it because usually we're right in the middle of those things."
The crash allowed Patrick to restart ninth, her best running position of the race that didn't come during a pit cycle. She was 14th when the race was red-flagged because of rain with 63 laps left and was advised by Gibson to "go like hell" and hope to mitigate the by-products of the more aggressive racing soon to follow. She almost made it.
Patrick finished the Daytona 500 sitting in front of a massive media throng answering questions about her latest historic accomplishment. She finished Sunday wheeling her car backward to the garage as her mechanics pushed.
Restrictor plate racing proved itself again to be spectacular and unpredictable. But then again, she already knew that.