Danica Patrick finished 12th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, not as spectacular as her historic fourth-place finish last spring but less demoralizing than many laps in her first two Nationwide Series races this season.
After starting 12th, with various misadventures and position changes during the 200 laps, she left content to finally make forward progress in her first full-time season in NASCAR's second-tier series.
"I promise you, I tried hard," Patrick said over the team radio after being unable to pass Sprint Cup veteran Kasey Kahne in the final 20 laps. "Nobody was really going anywhere. …Track position-wise, I couldn't get there."
As she is prone to do, Patrick then assessed her race, which included lengthy struggles and three pit stops attempting to tighten the handling of the No. 7 Chevrolet and allow her more comfort in the corners and ability to apply power. She also remembered a late restart when she took the green flag sixth but was consumed by more experienced drivers and sent back to 11th, ending her highest-running portion of the race.
"I just have to work on those restarts, and I have to be better telling you what the car needs for the end of the race," she radioed crew chief Tony Eury Jr. "I'm not mad. I didn't screw up."
"You'll get there," replied Eury, who deftly tweaked the handling of the car throughout the race, using air pressure and chassis adjustments to improve Patrick's sense of control when turning. Patrick thought her calls for adjustments might have made the car hard to turn in the final green-flag run.
After becoming the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR national touring series last year at Las Vegas, Patrick returned with the expectation of a top 10. But on a weekend in which she admittedly tempered her season-long ambitions -- namely designs on competing for a championship, as she once optimistically suggested -- getting close enough was apparently good enough.
After finishing 38th at Daytona and 21st at Phoenix, she improved six spots to 15th in series points, 69 behind leader Elliott Sadler.
"I guess today was one of those days when I feel like the result probably didn't show for how I kind of felt in the car," she said in a television interview. "It was a solid day. I wish I could have gotten in the top 10 because that was my goal, but there's not really much I can do about that. I was trying."
Patrick's rookie JR Motorsports teammate, Cole Whitt, finished sixth and is fifth in points position, 22 back.
It was apparent throughout the race that Patrick, a seven-year IndyCar veteran making her 29th start in a NASCAR top-three series event since 2010, was still very much a student.
Conversing under a Lap 79 caution, Patrick radioed Eury that she struggles to locate her pit stall because she is still used to the IndyCar system where crewmen set up before the car arrives, and she is fearful of striking someone.
Realizing that Eury's decision to slightly temper her request for adjustments to tighten the steering characteristics were ultimately correct, she quipped, "Thank you for being a veteran. I'd have been running the track like Darlington," referring to the practice of finding speed high in the groove, very near the wall.
After passing for 10th position after a restart on Lap 104, Patrick called out, "I have no left mirror, so you know."
Responded Eury, "As long as the windshield doesn't fall out, you'll be fine."
And she was fine as the handling adjustments finally began to improve her car and certainty in wielding it. She passed childhood friend and three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. for ninth position on Lap 118 and eventually moved to eighth on Lap 138. She fell quickly back to ninth, but a speedy pit stop under caution allowed her to restart sixth on Lap 150.
From there, however, her race was about holding on as the tightening characteristics of the car prevented her, she said, from being aggressive.
"It was definitely loose to start but once we got that together … then the middle of the race it was really coming to me, and then it got tight in the end," she said. "Tony knew it was coming, but we had done so many corrections for loose early on that you'd get a little scared to go too far back the other direction. We pitted there and didn't lose that much track position, but we made it a little bit more free for that last stop, but it still want quite enough."
Patrick will attempt to find that extra bit to get her inside the top 10 for the first time since Daytona and Chicago last summer when she competes Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. She started 29th and finished 33rd at the .533-mile short track last spring.