After two months of broken parts, frazzled patience, recalibrated motivations and one tossed shoe, Danica Patrick seemed to enjoy a positive and mostly uneventful evening Friday in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Doing so in one of the more historically tricky venues on the circuit was a bonus, especially as she prepared to resume her Sprint Cup schedule on the same Bristol Motor Speedway track Saturday.
Patrick recovered from a 34th-place start to remain on the lead lap throughout the race, overcome a pit road speeding penalty and finish ninth for just her second top-10 of the season. The result was a heartening conclusion to what was an otherwise humbling day of unfulfilled qualifying effort, slow times and a spin in Sprint Cup practice. It was also her third-best result and her fifth in the top 10 in 48 Nationwide starts over parts of three seasons.
Saturday night will present an entirely different and exponentially more difficult task against a Sprint Cup field. But with three races unfinished and no result better than 11th in her seven previous races, this was progress.
Patrick said after the race the weekend has so far felt much like her first foray into another tough venue, Darlington Raceway, this spring. She struggled mightily in that, her second double-duty weekend of the season, before recovering to finish 12th in the Nationwide race. She finished 31st in the Cup event, which was considered a success. Her effort Friday might have been more impressive, as she worked through the field, recovered from the speeding penalty and advanced from 17th to ninth in the final 70 laps to hold her position in a green/white/checker finish.
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. helped Patrick advance to mid-pack on a Lap 46 pit stop under caution when he opted for just two tires instead of four. Patrick restarted 17th on Lap 54 and held that position for much of the race.
After being caught up in a first-lap wreck at Watkins Glen two weeks ago and victimized by two serious parts failures after leading 20 laps last week, Patrick actually avoided calamity Friday on three occasions using the guidance of spotter Tab Boyd to maneuver just past cars spinning in her path. After deftly slinking past Brian Scott's sliding race car on Lap 63, she said over team radio, "We actually got a break?"
Patrick spent much of the middle part of the race battling for 17th position with Michael Annett, Patrick in the low line, Annett in the preferred high slot. Eury complained earlier this season that some drivers were employing clandestine tactics to disturb Patrick on the race track. His father and namesake, who serves as crew chief for JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt, apparently felt the same Friday, instructing her under caution how to stealthily slice Annett's tire with her tail pipe if shenanigans persisted. They didn't, as Patrick made the pass and advanced to 13th until being flagged for speeding on pit road on Lap 173.
"Son of a b----. I'm sorry. I was just trying to go," she replied when told of the penalty.
Told she had lost only four spots in the running order, she responded, "All right, Tab, time to bring the A-game then."
Patrick restarted 17th in the running with 71 laps remaining but quickly clicked off cars to regain her previous running position. She was 14th with 44 remaining and 11th on a restart with 16 to go. She moved into the top 10 with the help of a collision between Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon and engine problems for Kevin Harvick.
After weeks filled with problems to assess and emotions to sooth, Patrick was quiet on the radio in the cool-down laps, aside from asking where to park on an already confined race track suddenly bustling with postrace activity.
"Drive like that tomorrow and you'll have a fun night," Eury said over the radio.