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Sunday, July 22, 2012
Updated: July 23, 7:16 AM ET
Danica Patrick struggles with car, finishes 14th

By Brant James

The first of consecutive homecoming weekends for Danica Patrick passed with scant fanfare on Sunday, as she started 13th, finished 14th and spent most of her time in between wrestling a loose race car in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Patrick grew up less than two hours away from the Joliet, Ill., facility in the hamlet of Roscoe and had a larger than usual contingent of friends at the track, but there was little excitement, either from Patrick -- who was beset by the loose No. 7 Chevrolet early -- or from the race in general until an odd crash prompted by Sam Hornish Jr. in the waning laps.

Patrick had earned her second career top-10 at Chicago last year and races well on such high-banked, 1.5-mile ovals, where all but one of her four career top-10s have come. But despite being among the fastest in practice, she was unable to work her way into the top 10 as she managed handling issues in a race segmented by just five cautions.

Patrick returns to the scene of her greatest racing notoriety -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- next week when the Nationwide Series races at the stately, 103-year-old venue for the first time. Though Patrick's lone IndyCar win came at Motegi, Japan, in 2008, she was ordained as a household celebrity in 2005 when she set Indianapolis 500 gender records by starting and finishing fourth as a rookie and becoming the first woman to lead laps, including late in the race.

"Sorry I don't do a better job when it's loose," a resigned-sounding Patrick said over the team radio after crossing the finish line.

Patrick will return to IMS forging NASCAR history, however. In retaining ninth place in Nationwide driver points, she continues as the highest-standing female in series competition as many as 18 races into a season. She has held a top-10 slot for eight weeks in her first full-time season.

Patrick began the green/white/checker restart 14th on Sunday and back on the lead lap after pitting for tires on Lap 196 of a scheduled 200. Her newer tires didn't matter much in the three-lap dash to the end. The finish did represent a rally of sorts, however. Patrick was 23rd with 23 laps left after a caution had flown just after she pitted under green for the second time in the race.

Patrick's highest green-flag incursion came on a Lap 60 restart, when she began 12th despite a long pit stop to diagnose "a heavy wheel" with a chassis adjustment. She was rapidly swarmed by the field, however, and spent most of the race running between 15th and 17th positions.