Danica finishes on positive note
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Danica Patrick inspected the rear of her green race car in a bustling post-race garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday night. As her crewmen prepared to push the No. 10 Chevrolet onto a hydraulic lift and shelve it for the offseason, she reached down to pick at the edge of a broad band of yellow tape on the bumper. She ripped it away with an emphatic tug.
The tape, symbolically affixed to the bumpers of Sprint Cup rookies' cars, was gone and so was her slate heading into a second full season at NASCAR's highest level in 2014. Better still, it came off after one of the most encouraging starts of her stock car career.
Now I’ve done the whole season, I’ve gone to every track and learned a lot about a lot of things … and it just makes me more prepared for the future.Danica Patrick
"It's one thing to have the yellow stripe on the car," Patrick said after a 20th-place finish, her eighth top 20 of the season. "It's another thing with all the things being a rookie signifies, which a lot is, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' So I think that's what I'm most pleased about is, now I've done the whole season, I've gone to every track and learned a lot about a lot of things -- not just cars but about the team -- and it just makes me more prepared for the future."
Patrick finished 27th in the final driver standings after producing her best finish since a 17th-place result at Martinsville Speedway four races ago.
Patrick's season finale was in many ways a microcosm of the way her rookie season has played out. She qualified 24th, was scored 18th on Lap 12 before falling back to mid-pack later in the run. She was penalized on a Lap 69 pit stop for leaving her pit stall with a jack still attached and was forced to restart at the end of the field, 37th and lapped. She had entered the stop 25th under caution.
But Patrick rallied by producing, crew chief Tony Gibson said, one of her signature moments of the season to rekindle hopes in the race and allow the team a momentum-building push into the offseason.
Patrick blasted from 37th to 26th quickly and back on the lead lap as the "lucky dog" beneficiary in 17 laps, eliciting a call of "yeah!" when the next caution was issued for a Dave Blaney spin on Lap 89.
"Starting in the very back and coming through to get the lucky dog within a lap, like I had just passed [Jeff Burton], it picks up everyone's morale but also the car was good and could do it," Patrick said.
Patrick remained on the lead lap until her 140th orbit of the 1.5-mile track, as Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed within a few seconds of each other battling for the lead. She was placed back on the lead lap following a caution on Lap 152 as the highest-scored car not already there.
Patrick entrenched herself on the edge of the top 20 through multiple pit stops in the middle of the race, standing 20th on Lap 225.
"We knew if we could hang on and stay on the lead lap until about halfway we had a shot at top 20," Gibson said. "Danica did a hell of a job, got two lucky dogs by passing guys and getting to that spot."
While Patrick earned her piece of discarded tape, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. officially earned the Sprint Cup rookie of the year award after finishing 22nd.
"It was fun," Stenhouse said of the friendly competition between the romantic interests. "We joked a little bit about it, but we didn't really focus too much on it. We definitely wanted to focus all our efforts on the racetrack, just try to get the best finish we could every week."
After a short offseason -- vacation begins at 7 a.m. Monday, she said -- Patrick is eager to commence 2014.
"It's especially positive with all the stuff to look forward to with the new teammates, new personnel, bigger teams, and I think we learned from what we weren't ready for this year," she said. "We're going to be more ready next year."