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There were different agendas, all going around together Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, and Danica Patrick was right in the middle of it. As Sprint Cup's most successful 12 drivers began the 10-race Chase for the Cup, Patrick commenced the second half of her 10-race schedule at NASCAR's highest level.
It began with the best result of her six-race Sprint Cup career, as Patrick overcame a starting position of 41 and a menacingly loose No. 10 Chevrolet to finish 25th. Patrick's previous best Cup result had been consecutive 29th-place finishes at Bristol and Atlanta.
"I think we made a lot of progress in the race," said Patrick, who was 12th in the Nationwide race at the 1.5-mile Joliet, Ill., track Saturday. "I think [Stewart-Haas race strategist Greg Zipadelli] did a good job of changing the car and making good changes each time.
"We got a little bit loose toward the end, I feel like lost a little bit of ground in that run. But then in the last run, I felt like we got a little bit of that back. If anything we were a little tight. Be careful what you ask for, I guess.
"Ultimately, I think it was generally a big improvement on overall lap time throughout a run, and that is the kind of stuff we need to be doing."
Patrick, who is scheduled to commence a full-time Sprint Cup campaign next year, finished two laps down as eventual race-winner Brad Keselowski was able to pass with 27 remaining. Otherwise, she spent most of the second half of the race attempting to catch Sprint Cup veteran Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya to be the top scored car one lap down.
In the oddity that is the Chase, non-qualifiers compete along with the championship-eligible drivers. Patrick's charge was even odder in that her Cup schedule -- and for that matter, her first full Nationwide season concurrently -- is a season-long test session.
Patrick and crew were cognizant of the Chase drivers around, with spotter Tab Boyd informing her of their proximity on the track and Zipadelli attempting to keep her from interfering with Jeff Gordon, whose pit stall was close to hers.
Patrick was lapped by championship-eligible, five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson on Lap 35 as she dealt with a loose car, and the team eschewed taking the wave-around back onto the lead lap on an early caution so it could pit and improve handling.
Patrick was able to race against a Chase driver on Lap 168 as Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford became hobbled and slow because of a lost shock absorber. Kenseth's problems preceded a wave of attrition -- including a stuck throttle that caused Gordon to crash -- which helped Patrick slide higher up the scoring pylon and to her career-best result.
Patrick resumes her Cup schedule at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30.