Danica Patrick starts 40th, finishes 28th
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Fireworks were bursting above Darlington Raceway to commemorate the conclusion of a laborious and lengthy Southern 500 as Danica Patrick climbed through the window of her No. 10 Chevrolet in the garage and began scanning its green sheet metal by the rockets' red glare.
It was slightly scuffed in places, pocked with bits of rubber but otherwise pristine, especially by the standards of one of NASCAR's more demanding tracks and most grueling races. And on a weekend when Patrick had utilized a backup car after wrecking in practice Friday, to finish 28th on Saturday and complete every lap ultimately was categorized as success. It didn't necessarily feel that way immediately after the race.
"Nothing is wasted," Patrick said. "No lap or no run is wasted, but sometimes the fruits of your labor aren't realized until later on."
For perpetually positive crew chief Tony Gibson, there was much to build upon Saturday. Even the lengthy series of green-flag runs that prevented him from honing the handling on Patrick's race car provided a learning opportunity for such obscure but crucial skills, he said, as warming tires after pit stops.
"She did a good job. And it's tough here," he said. "When you start that far back, it's tough."
Patrick qualified 40th of 43 in the backup car. She had lost control of the primary in Friday's practice session, mashing in the right side of the car and making it unusable for qualifying or the race.
"We had a setback in practice that didn't allow us to get all the practice time in, and we also didn't do any qualifying runs," Patrick said, "which led us to going out cold for qualifying, which is not a strength of mine anyway."
Gibson said Patrick's lap times Saturday were markedly faster in the latter stages of the race, which coincided with a spate of cautions that allowed him to tweak the car's handling. Midway, as Patrick was making a slow progression from 36th, as many as five laps down, spotter Brandon Benesch complimented her for mimicking the racing line taken by the fastest drivers around the 1.36-mile track. The cascading effect of the Friday crash had finally been stemmed.
"Probably about halfway through the race, it clicked," Gibson said. "She started to really, really start running some good lap times and she picked up a few things, learning, following other guys. I thought it went really good. I thought we learned a lot. ... I thought the effort was an A-plus."
Patrick had alerted Gibson during one of the early protracted stints that she suspected a tire was going flat but was assured by her crew chief and spotter that she was mistaken. Therein, another lesson.
"You learn lessons, no doubt," she said of the tire diagnosis. "Sure enough, nothing was wrong, it was just that the right rear got too hot. So lessons like that, learning you lean on a corner too hard for a while and you're going to pay the price. ... [You] start to learn tricks and get better with the line and what it takes. It's never wasted, no doubt."