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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Updated: March 1, 12:49 PM ET
Plenty of speed bumps await Danica

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Phase 1 of the Danica Patrick NASCAR road show is over. It ended with a bang.

Unfortunately, that was banging sheet metal of a mangled No. 7 Chevy that ruined her day in the Sam's Town 300.

But wrecked car and all, this was a much better performance than one week ago at Fontana, Calif.

Patrick started in the back, but passed cars from the green flag like she meant business. She spent some time near the front, thanks to pit strategy, and held her own.

And she was moving up again when the wreck came on Lap 84, an incident with the previously wrecked car of Michael McDowell.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick (7) made an early exit from the Sam's Town 300 after her Lap 84 run-in with Michael McDowell.

So what's her grade? Last week: D-minus. This week: B-minus.

And overall for her four-week initiation into stock-car racing, including a sixth-place ARCA finish at Daytona and a typical restrictor-plate wreck a week later on her Nationwide debut?

I'll give her a C-plus. It could have been a little better, and it could have been much worse.

"Today was a big step," Patrick said. "Fontana was a big challenge. It was a real humbling weekend. But I was having a lot of fun here at a track that's smoother. I feel bad for crashing the car. I'm not the type of person who crashes cars, but that's racing."

The box score will show Patrick finished 36th. She deserved better.

She was running 27th, one lap down, when she tried to pass McDowell, who had just returned to the track after an earlier accident. McDowell was slow, Patrick was fast -- a recipe for disaster. Patrick went low to pass him and they collided.

And Patrick was one very angry woman at that moment, which included a four-letter word you probably can guess.

"I don't know what he was looking at, if he was looking," she said on the radio.

McDowell came over and apologized to Tony Eury Jr., Patrick's crew chief. And he did the same later with reporters.

"I hope Junior Nation and Danica Mania don't attack me, because I'm a big fan," McDowell said. "And I don't mean to make light of it.

"She has every right to be upset. I came out with a torn-up race car and she just came out on new tires. It was 100 percent my fault. I take the blame for it, and I apologize."

But McDowell did make a point about stock car fundamentals.

"Typically in stock car racing, if you have a slow car, it stays on the bottom," McDowell said. "I was trying to signal to her I was going to run the bottom, but she had already committed to the bottom and I was there."

Unlike last week, when she finished 31st, three laps down, Patrick's anger was gone when she climbed out of the race car. She knew she made some major improvements.

"We were pretty good the whole time, really,'' she said. "The team did a good job of bringing a car that gave me confidence from the first run out there.

"I really felt good that last time out on stickers [new tires]. I felt like I was on a roll. But the fresh tires bit me a little bit because I caught that car in front of me so fast on the front straight. I meant to go underneath him. I think the red tape on his rear bumper should have been a big signal for me."

It's not often that a crew chief looks at a destroyed race car and has a smile on his face, but Eury was pleased with his celebrity racer's effort.

"That right there is what I've seen in all her tests," Eury said. "California was nowhere near what she is capable of. I hated she got in that accident today, but she came here and did what she needed to do.

''I think she had a better feel for the race car. This track kind of fits her demeanor a little more. California is a really tricky place. It's one of the top three hardest tracks in the series."

That right there is what I've seen in all her tests. California was nowhere near what she is capable of. I hated she got in that accident today, but she came here and did what she needed to do.

-- Tony Eury Jr.

Patrick learned some hard lessons. She also learned other competitors are willing to help her, including Saturday's race winner, Kevin Harvick.

"Kevin was pointing me [to go] up high when he was the leader,'' Patrick said. "That was so damn cool of him.

"Learning from that, I would have been much better at the end, but didn't get a chance to show it. I would have been nice to have a decent finish. I was feeling better and better out there."

DeLana Harvick, Kevin wife's and owner of the Nationwide car, said Patrick was confused at first about Harvick's gesture.

"She thought he gave her the finger," DeLana said.

Kevin was happy to give her some advice.

"She's been very open with us," Harvick said. "She needed to run the top at that point of the race. I will give people help if they ask, and she's been very open on asking questions.

"She's having to learn things we learned with 600 people in the stands. But millions of people are watching her. She handles it well. I'd probably tell all y'all to take a hike."

The race had an impressive turnout. The grandstands were two-thirds full, amazing for a race that started 90 minutes late on a cold and rainy day. But many of those folks weren't around at the end.

When Patrick crashed, they headed for the exits. That alone should tell you something about her appeal.

Now comes a four-month hiatus from NASCAR while Patrick concentrates on her IndyCar effort. Her next Nationwide event is June 26 at New Hampshire.

"I'm gonna miss it,'' Patrick said. "I wish I had a race next weekend. I'm going to miss everyone on the team, but I'm sure we'll keep in contact."

And how does she feel about her first test in the NASCAR world?

"I'm proud of some things," she said. "Maybe I should be proud of everything, but that's just me as a competitor. I get frustrated easily."

All racers do. Patrick is a superstar celebrity, but she's also a racer. Her first NASCAR stint is done, a little hint of the incredible scrutiny and impossible expectations still to come.

All in all, it wasn't half bad.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.