Danica Patrick was jealous of Austin Dillon. And there was a lot to covet. Nearly halfway through their first full seasons in NASCAR's second-tier series, the 22-year-old grandson of iconic team owner Richard Childress had the type of fast and nimble race car Patrick yearned for in a "frustrating-to-sort-of-quite-average night" and 12th-place effort of her own Friday at Kentucky Speedway.
"Congrats to Austin," she said. "I envy his first win. Good for him."
The only experience they shared was jumping a spot in the points standings, Dillon to the lead, Patrick to ninth.
Patrick got to see Dillon close-up only twice Friday, as he lapped her (and all but the top eight by the finish) at the midway point and in the final laps. Their interaction was far different from their encounter two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, where Dillon pulled so close to Patrick as to foul the air on her rear spoiler and send her spinning. The episode sparked a diatribe by Patrick's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., about what he perceives as a lack of respect for his driver, and her need to learn the "dirty tricks" of NASCAR's big leagues and respond with them when they are used against her. In defending himself, Dillon said he had no ill intentions. If there was a problem, they had reconciled by the rookie meeting last weekend at Road America in Wisconsin. Patrick's lessons Friday were more mechanical than interpersonal.
"Just never really felt like we were settled down and the car was, like, in the track," Patrick said in a television interview. "No matter what our handling issue was, it was just too much for the car to handle. It was either loose in or tight off, and even for the little bits of time where it was settled down and I had a decent balance, [I] just couldn't drive it very hard.
"I think we're going to have to think about the setup and some of the things we've been trying. You've got to try stuff, so we were trying some different stuff, and maybe it's not so good."
Patrick qualified 11th but was displeased with the handling of the No. 7 Chevrolet from the early laps, as she fell back to 14th quickly and to a low point of 20th. The car, she said, was constantly difficult to steer, and adjustments on three pit stops failed to correct the issue, preventing her from fully applying the throttle through corners and robbing her of speed. Her night appeared to be a mundane series of laps with little close-quarters action, aside from a slight bump of the slower car of Tanner Berryhill just before a Lap 140 pit sequence. She was 15th with nine laps remaining but was able to advance three positions with the help of a retiring race car and JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt requiring a quick pit stop to take enough fuel to finish the race.
In making her stock car debut at Kentucky -- she had four top-10s in seven IndyCar starts there -- Patrick reduced to three the number of tracks on the 33-race Nationwide schedule where she has yet to race.
"Really sorry I wasn't any faster," she said over the team radio after the race. "Just didn't feel like it was in the track today. For one thing or another, it was either tight or loose. You guys worked hard. It doesn't change that."