Danica Patrick headed out of Dover International Speedway on Sunday, into an idle week and seemingly very much into 2013, when she is scheduled to make a full-time debut in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series.
Her 400 laps in Sunday's race was unremarkable with a 28th-place, seven-laps-down finish, but educational laps were logged in another of 10 scheduled starts at NASCAR's highest level. She attempted to avoid trouble and the 12 drivers contending for the Sprint Cup title as much as possible, irking some anyway, but gaining experience.
"We made it better most every stop," Patrick said of honing the No. 10 Chevrolet from harder to turn to more nimble. "It's a good starting place for next year when we get here, and that's the point of these races."
Two other bits of business in the Dover news cycle this weekend likely will go as far in determining how prepared the 30-year-old former open-wheel driver will be for a 36-race Sprint Cup schedule with Stewart-Haas Racing next season. According to multiple reports, veteran crew chief Tony Gibson and his team, which currently supports SHR's Ryan Newman, will be assigned to Patrick beginning next season.
Gibson told ESPN.com his "redneck style of racing mixed in with a lot of engineering," mimic the homespun approach of Patrick's former Nationwide crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., as she synchronizes with Stewart-Haas Racing's three-car program, including driver/owner Tony Stewart.
Secondly, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton announced this weekend that in 2013 the series will relax restrictions in place since 2008 that prevented teams from testing privately at venues hosting NASCAR events.
Teams will now be allowed four tests of their choosing in addition to preseason activities at Daytona International Speedway. That will afford Patrick learning opportunities that were unavailable to open-wheel converts such as three-time IndyCar series champion Sam Hornish Jr., whose NASCAR career was stunted in its early phases by stringent testing limitations.
With those new rules not yet in place, Sunday's Sprint Cup race was, in essence, Patrick's seventh 43-car test with points being tallied. She qualified 38th and was lapped by Denny Hamlin by the 20th revolution of the slick concrete 1-mile track. Stuck in 38th place, she was sent another lap down on Lap 38.
Patrick and spotter Tab Boyd seemed cognizant of trying to stay out of the race lines of championship-contending teams, but Martin Truex Jr. was warned by his spotter to stay alert because Patrick "has got these guys held up." Stewart, another title hopeful and the defending series champion, complained later in the race that a clot including Patrick, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray "are holding the whole [expletive] group up."
During a caution, Patrick radioed, "I wasn't trying to piss anybody off at all," commenting how her attempts to lift off the throttle and allow cars to pass was ruining her momentum and lap times.
Race strategist Greg Zipadelli assured her she had handled the situations properly.
Patrick was able to advance positions because of attrition and improvements made to the car in the second half of the race, maintaining 28th place for the final 50 laps. Zipadelli had Patrick practice conserving fuel on the final green-flag run, a concept often applied in open wheel racing but a new skill given the difference in hardware in stock cars.
In finishing 28th, Patrick ended a six-event streak in which she had at least matched -- and in every case but one, improved -- the result of her previous Cup race. After finishing 38th in the Daytona 500, Patrick was 31st at Darlington, 30th at Charlotte, 29th at Bristol and Atlanta before a career-best 25th at Chicago.
"It was a typical day for us," Zipadelli said. "We started off a little slow, and the longer we went, we made the car better and she did a better job of figuring out where she needed to make speed when she got around guys. She picked up a lot."