The 10th and final race of Danica Patrick's 2012 Sprint Cup tutorial ended with a fitting summation Sunday at Phoenix, not only of her season but also of the flying circus to which she will dedicate her professional life full-time beginning next year.
There were struggles, there was progress, and then there was smoke. Lots of it.
In the process, she finished 17th, her best result in 10 starts at NASCAR's highest level.
It seemed as if it would end well, and calmly enough. For the second day in a row, she was chatting with her team under a crash-induced red flag in the waning laps, joking about the garage melee between crews after Jeff Gordon's retaliation against Clint Bowyer wrecked both out of the race.
Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson quipped about how they would need to quickly find a television after the race to absorb the melodrama, which included Bowyer sprinting from his car and attempting to invade Gordon's hauler. Spotter Tab Boyd assured them there would be plenty of opportunities to catch those highlights, prompting Patrick to remind them how she believes NASCAR is more interesting with a certain amount of applied animosity.
And then the race resumed. Patrick restarted 13th but was sent into the wall in Turn 3 on the second lap of the green/white/checker finish as Jeff Burton veered up off the apron and into her No. 10 Chevrolet. Patrick managed to avoid traffic on the compact 1-mile track and nurse her car down along the pit road wall -- staying on the track instead of ducking onto pit road -- but the field was quickly back upon her as NASCAR officials seemed to disregard protocol in not issuing another caution flag.
Several cars, out of control after driving through fluids disgorged by Patrick's car, began careening. "There was more oil than asphalt," race winner Kevin Harvick said.
Boyd cryptically informed Patrick she was about to be struck by the high-speed flotsam, and the duel impacts from Paul Menard and Kurt Busch's cars sent her briefly airborne and further down the track.
"I think Tony Gibson went down and talked to him, and [Burton] said, 'I'm sorry, I just bonzaied. I just went in too deep,'" Patrick said. "[Burton] clipped me, I spun around, got it going again. [I] was on fire I think, and I was trying to get across the line. I was literally trying to drive into the wall, then drive along it because I couldn't see.
"I don't know exactly what happened. I heard there might have been oil from me, or something. If so, I definitely wasn't intending to make a mess. But 17th
we were 13th, that's pretty good. Short tracks are not my strong suit."
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said series officials did not realize Patrick's car had leaked oil onto the track.
"When she got up in [the wall], at the time she came all the way around and she was out of harm's way," he said. "We didn't see any fluid or anything. She rode around on the apron, and when she pulled up on the racetrack, there was smoke -- it looked like tire smoke. It's easy to look back on it, obviously, and wish that you did something different, but at the time it didn't appear like there was any fluid that was coming out of the car."
Patrick was one of many sent spinning or dodging at some point in a wreck-filled race that Cup points leader Brad Keselowski described as "absolutely ridiculous" and things more profane. The spin of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart on Lap 280 of a scheduled 312 allowed Patrick to regain a spot on the lead lap as the highest-scored lapped car at the time of the caution. After a four-tire pit stop, she restarted 22nd but began to pass cars that had skipped stops to gain track position. Patrick had been lapped and mired in 27th position as late as Lap 183.
Patrick's most recent brush with childhood friend and foil Sam Hornish Jr. allowed her to hold 19th place with 12 laps remaining, as her fender appeared to shred his right front tire as they bumped contesting the position. She also was able to nab three spots diving down onto the apron in the final two laps when Gordon and Bowyer's wreck claimed Joey Logano's car.
Patrick's incident with Burton ruined a better finish but wasn't catastrophic, as there were just 17 cars on the lead lap for the final restart. She officially finished a lap down, however.
Set to commence a full Cup season with Stewart-Haas Racing next year, Patrick finished 30th or worse in her first three Cup races this season, 25th or worse in the next three. Since being paired with Gibson and his crew -- who will run her program next season -- she has produced her two best Cup finishes.
"Another great day," Gibson said. "She had a top-10, -12 car all day long. She deserved to finish 12th, at least. But, she got wrecked by Burton. But, it's our best finish, 17th. We'll take that.
She's getting better, and better, and better. It just makes us pumped for next year."