Danica Patrick had spent nearly four hours and 500 miles learning how to compete at Darlington Raceway in a Sprint Cup car on Saturday. By the final three laps, she had learned it was time to get out of the way and let the finish play out for the leaders.
After being involved in an early crash and finishing a hobbled 38th in her first Sprint Cup start in the Daytona 500, the former IndyCar driver cautiously negotiated the tricky 1.366-mile oval Saturday night, finishing an educated 31st in the Southern 500.
Six laps down and with nothing to gain as eventual winner Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and a bevy of cars attempting to recoup a solid finish lined up for the final restart, Patrick was instructed by race strategist Greg Zipadelli not to risk impacting the finish by starting too close to cars in front that might be low on fuel and prone to bobble.She was onboard with the idea after a long weekend -- racing both Cup and Nationwide -- at one of the sport's most notoriously difficult venues.
Patrick, who finished a gender-record 12th in the Nationwide Race on Friday, sounded pleased with the trying weekend in her customary in-car debrief, saying she had wanted to avoid being a "moving chicane'' and to finish.
"In theory, I accomplished what I wanted,'' she said.
A quantum upgrade in driver talent and horsepower limited the amount Patrick could translate into her second Cup start, so her Stewart-Haas Racing contingent, with Zipadelli and spotter Tab Boyd, spent the 368 laps imparting volumes of information and radio dispatch after dispatch of constant encouragement. No small detail went unlauded, which she later asserted had helped immensely.
After screeching from her pit stall during a midrace caution, Patrick commented over team radio how much more acceleration her No. 10 Chevrolet had than the No. 7 she drove the previous night. Cup cars have 850 horsepower compared with 650 in Nationwide.
"Step on it, she goes,'' Boyd said.
Patrick started 38th but quickly moved to 34th and spent the entire race hovering in that general vicinity after being lapped by the 28th circuit. She slowly grew more confident approaching the jutting, tire-streaked wall on the backstretch but absorbed feedback strategies for exiting and entering corners throughout the race.
Patrick got an unexpected lesson in managing a loose race car to start the race, as it began with an unusual 154-lap caution-free run. As Patrick exited the pits, Boyd said, "You just ran the whole Nationwide race under green there.''
The Nationwide race lasted just 151 laps.
"Makes it go quicker, though,'' she said.
Patrick fell more laps behind as the race evolved, and she was assessed a pass-through penalty with 85 laps remaining as she struck the commitment cone. She also needed an extra pit stop when a fuel can failed to discharge properly, and she had to return to have the No. 10 filled. Her brushes with the backstretch wall were minor, although with 120 laps left she radioed, "I think I looked silly in front of Jeff Gordon hitting the wall a couple times. Kind of made me mad.''
Boyd soothed that, too, by pointing out she was ahead of Gordon, who had numerous tire and mechanical problems.
Boyd's assistance in devising a game plan for Patrick around Darlington continued well after the checkered flag when, from the spotter's stand, he instructed her to back up on pit road to avoid a clump of cars and Johnson's smoky victory burnout, divining a pathway through hordes in the garage and to her hauler.