CONCORD, N.C. – Danica Patrick reached Victory Lane on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Trouble was, it was hours before the Coca-Cola 600, in a promotional appearance.
Patrick's on-going NASCAR education -- which Dale Earnhardt Jr. likened this week to "trying to get a four-year degree in a short amount of time" -- continued with a slog through NASCAR's longest race and a 30th-place finish, five laps down, in her third-ever Sprint Cup start.
Despite the finish, Patrick and race strategist Greg Zipadelli actually wished the race could have been a bit longer, segmented with a few more cautions. That would have allowed them to make adjustments to the No. 10 Chevrolet that take too long and cost too many positions under green flag conditions.
"For me, as a driver in general in NASCAR, but especially as a new driver in the Cup series, that hurts me," she said of long green-flag runs. "I'm just not great at making the best out of a car that's not perfect. So those long runs really showed that. But that's what you get in Cup. You get a lot of green flag running, and I've got to learn to deal with that. That's just the nature of where I am in my learning curve."
Patrick's first foray into IndyCar's Memorial Day classic -- the Indianapolis 500 -- launched her racing and business career as an endorser into the mainstream. Then a 23-year-old rookie, she set gender records by starting and finishing fourth (she finished third in 2009) and leading the first laps (19) by a female late in the race.
Patrick said that watching the race today was "the first time I had that feeling I was wish I was there" because she "tapped into some memories. I could picture myself on the straightaway. I could picture myself for intros."
Patrick's debut in NASCAR's Memorial Day classic was much more humble. She qualified 40th and ran in the 30s in the endurance race for most of the 400 laps, amid just five cautions. She seemed irritated on multiple occasions with how aggressively she was being raced, asking spotter Tab Boyd incredulously at one point if she was being blocked, and later about David Gilliland, "does he run me hard and no one else?"
She sustained sheet metal damage on Lap 333 when she was bumped as a pack of cars attempting to stay on the lead lap over ran her. The travails of her on-the-job training at NASCAR's highest level had annoyed her competitors, also. Within the first 110 laps, Jeff Gordon, when told by his spotter he was about to overtake Patrick, responded, "There's the 10. I can see all four lanes of her."
On Lap 267, she radioed, "Look, if 'Five-Time' [series champion Jimmie Johnson] tells me to run my race and let everyone get around me, that's what I am doing."
"There was a couple of times out there it felt like it was a little bit unnecessary, but at the same time, I'm new and if that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes," she conceded. "I just need to know. But I definitely got pretty loose in [Turns] 3 and 4 with some cars there and pretty sure I got hit.
"It's just a bummer. I'm prepared completely to get out of the way for the lead-lap cars. All they have to do is get a nose in or out on me, and I'm going to give it to them. I'm going to run them smart. There's going to be a time and a place for everything, and this is not the time for me to try and prove anything. This is the time for me to learn."
Patrick has much less to learn in handling her role as a celebrity. But she at times seemed like a fan herself during the pre-race appearance with actress and Charlotte-area product Brooklyn Decker, who was at the track as grand marshal. Patrick, who met Decker at a party to promote their appearances in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue a few years ago, marveled at Decker's day-glo shoes and "superstar" status.
"Any time a woman can do well in any sport, it's to be admired, truly," Decker said. "To see her transcend, go from Indy to this, it's pretty incredible. She's done it seamlessly. It's fun to watch her."
Responded Patrick: "Speaking of transcend, obviously, I knew Brooklyn when she was a smoking-hot model. She still is a smoking-hot model underneath those clothes. Now she's a superstar. I watched her from a distance before I knew we were doing this. I was, 'How in the world does she go from the cover of Sports Illustrated to three huge movies?' It's pretty amazing. I don't feel like there's many more people that have been able to do that."
Patrick reached her highest running positing on Lap 341 when she sidled into 30th position as Mark Martin's car was taken to the garage. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart, whose Stewart Haas Racing team fields Patrick's cars in a partnership with Tommy Baldwin Racing, finished 25th.
"Overall, I think we didn't make any big mistakes," Zipadelli said. "Obviously, we would have liked to have been a couple positions further. Twenty-fifth, 26th would have been a big success, I think, when you look at all the people who were back."