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Saturday, August 25, 2012
Crash sends Danica Patrick back to 29th

By Brant James

Midway through the marathon that is the Bristol Motor Speedway night race, when it became apparent that Danica Patrick had the car and wherewithal to negotiate 500 laps around the .533-mile bull ring and produce a pleasantly surprising finish, spotter Tab Boyd began troubleshooting.

On Lap 300, he instructed Patrick to surrender 20th position and let the battered car of Kurt Busch past.

"Look at his car," he said. "It's beat up like a frickin' video game."

Busch was involved in another collision just laps later.

Landon Cassill, who had crashed into eventual race-winner Denny Hamlin during an early pit stop, was such an annoyance that Boyd took time to inform the driver through his spotter during a caution that his conduct was growing tiresome.

After Patrick teammate and boss Tony Stewart was collected in a Lap 333 incident with Matt Kenseth, Boyd announced firmly, "We gotta do exactly what we're doing: stay outta the crap."

On Lap 394, Boyd commanded Patrick to "run your own race," not battle David Gilliland for the 22nd spot, and continue her process of information-gathering and live-fire testing in just her fourth Sprint Cup start.

They couldn't do enough about Regan Smith, though.

Trying to pass Patrick for 20th position with just 66 laps remaining Saturday night, Smith appeared to ride up the track and initiate contact with the rear of her No. 10 Chevrolet, sending her grille-first into a retaining wall and to a 29th-place finish. It wasn't at all representative of her effort at one of NASCAR's most trying venues, but it was still her best result in a Sprint Cup race.

Stewart vented his bile by slamming his helmet onto Kenseth's hood as he drove past. Patrick indulged in her first short-track irritation by wagging her finger at Smith as he passed her wreck scene under caution.

"It was just a bummer, because I really felt like the car was going to get a solid, maybe a top 20 finish and on the lead lap," she said. "And that wouldn't have been something that I thought would happen tonight. The team did a great job and everything was running really smoothly. So it's a shame that we lost that. But you know, Bristol is a place where you find out who's playing fair and who's not."

Neither Patrick nor her team was as diplomatic when the incident occurred after a restart. Though her car appeared to wiggle slightly before contact was made, they clearly blamed Smith. Boyd told Patrick over team radio that Smith "straight up wrecked you," both he and Patrick called him select vulgarities and race strategist Greg Zipadelli added a third and a threat to "choke" him.

They all had clearly elevated expectations in what began as a humbling first weekend at Bristol.

Patrick qualified last in what was her first Sprint Cup race on a short track but worked slowly through the field in the first 200 laps, using Boyd's instruction to avoid potential pitfalls and maximize her momentum around the highly-banked concrete track. She managed to stay on the lead lap for much of the race, as late as with 91 remaining until race-leading Hamlin passed. Patrick was 18th on a Lap 342 restart but advanced no higher.

Patrick entered the race with just one top-10 in seven Nationwide races on tracks less than a mile in length -- although it came Friday night in a ninth-place result -- and an average finish of 20th. She appeared in position to beat that average Saturday, which would have made for a more impressive weekend than the credibility-building two-series weekend at Darlington, where she finished 12th in Nationwide and 31st in Cup at the 1.3-mile venue.

Patrick had not started a race at NASCAR's highest level since May, when she was a career-Cup-best 30th in the Coca-Cola 600. She will contest six of the next 12 Cup races as she prepares for a full-time launch in 2013.

The experience-building came in waves Saturday as she amassed laps and lessons. The results she thinks she deserves remain elusive. But the performances have been encouraging enough to raise expectations and make endings like Saturday's agitating.