DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Members of Danica Patrick's pit crew were scattered behind their war wagon near the end of pit road at Daytona International Speedway, resting, sweating and staring into space as they monitored radio chatter.
Patrick's aptitude at NASCAR's most storied venue made the Friday night race one of the prime opportunities for victory remaining in Patrick's first full Nationwide Series season, according to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. The sense of anticipation amid the tires and air wrenches underscored how much his crew agreed.
And Patrick was proving them right. She had led five times for 13 laps and was running sixth on Lap 83 of 100, searching for another draft partner to spirit her back to the front and, perhaps, to the first national series NASCAR win by a female in the sport's history.
Then the squawk in their ear pieces indicated their driver was in the type of multi-car melee typical of restrictor-plate racing, the type that had damaged 14 cars in an earlier incident. They rushed to the television monitor at the pit box just in time for the in-car view from her No. 7 Chevrolet of the hood crumpling as the car rammed a wall. She finished 31st.
"All I saw there was an accident happening in front of me, and I went to go low to miss it,'' Patrick said after being evaluated at the infield care center. "Other than that, honestly, I'd be making it up from whatever from there on out. It's just really frustrating when I have as fast a car as I did, and I know Tony Jr. is frustrated. I know he expected to see that in victory lane."
They all did. Patrick has built the competitive aspect of her powerful image by excelling on the largest stages: Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, increasingly, Daytona. Her affinity for Daytona began early in her stock car career, although she admittedly didn't know it was 2.5 miles long when she arrived for a stock car test with JR Motorsports there in late December, 2009. Thronged by fans, media and observed from afar by NASCAR president Mike Helton, who had meandered over from the sanctioning body offices, she exited her car wide-eyed and pleased with herself after undertaking a rain-shortened test in the ARCA series. She returned in February to finish sixth in her first stock car race in the grassroots circuit.
Beginning her part-time NASCAR career in the Nationwide Series days later that SpeedWeeks, Patrick led four laps – she has led four of five starts in the series at Daytona -- and improved her finishing position with each attempt until being involved in a bump-drafting mishap with teammate Cole Whitt in February. She had begun the race from the pole. Patrick led the Daytona summer Nationwide race last July with five laps left until she was detached from the draft and eventually finished 10th. And so expectations were raised.
Eury, who spent several minutes after the race Friday dissecting and contorting twisted metal on the car so it could be loaded on the team hauler, clearly expected more. Patrick led more laps than any driver except winner Kurt Busch. She remained ninth in driver points.
"This is probably one of the biggest chances we had to win a race with her," Eury said. "It's like the road courses, we're doing pretty good, but we knew we had an opportunity to come in here and try to win this race, and we were doing the right things until right then."
Patrick's steering column wrenched violently upward after the crash and "hit my arm pretty hard," she said. Eury said the bending of the steering column was caused when the front clip of the car was bent back "about a foot," creating an accordion effect.
A wreck with 35 laps left reduced the amount of competitive cars, in Eury's estimation, to eight, including Patrick's. She was restarted second when the mess was finally cleaned but was shuffled 13th when a caution flew on Lap 76 of 100.
Patrick had worked her way back to sixth when she was caught in the second wreck cued by a hard bump draft from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The defending series champion's attempt to push Jeffrey Earnhardt appeared to send Earnhardt's car out of control. Patrick was collected after trying to dip low and avoid the wreck.
"You figured it was going to be like that because when you lose 20 of the best cars and then you ain't got but eight, everybody thinks it's a 911 drill," Eury said. "It's Daytona. Either win or crash."
Patrick's emotions seemed to be a jumble of both as she processed a night of lost opportunity.
"It's the best frustration that you can have," she said. "You thought you were going to get to victory lane. That's the best frustration you can have. It's also the pinnacle of sad, too, because it could have been."