Danica: 'That just wasn't any fun'
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The melon-colored Florida Lottery Chevrolet was wedged nose to tail in a line of other Nationwide Series cars in the garage of Daytona International Speedway on Saturday. Some were dented, some were hissing steam. They were going nowhere.
It wasn't much different than in the 121 laps they had just completed in the series opener of NASCAR's top-tier developmental series.
The driver of that melon-colored car had unstrapped and departed quickly. By the sound of her radio chatter during the race, Danica Patrick wished she could have done that a lot earlier.
Mired in the long lines of traffic that dictated the pace -- or lack of it -- after falling from her third starting position on the first lap, Patrick held on to a 19th-place finish in a prelude to the Daytona 500 that likely yielded little usable information for the Sprint Cup opener Sunday.
"That just wasn't any fun," Patrick said on team radio after the final lap, on which Regan Smith beat Brad Keselowski to the checkered flag.
Restarting 21st on a green/white/checker finish, Patrick sounded resigned to attempting a mid-pack finish unless she was able to somehow make a high line work that had been the inferior route all afternoon.
"Get up high and hope for the best," she said. "This is track-position racing right here."
Patrick had earlier prophesized a "crashfest" finish as drivers waited patiently or attempted unsuccessfully to break free of the two long trains of draft lines, with the low line dominant. It was a reasonable prediction, given the melee that occurred at the end of the season-debut last season and the amount of wrecks in Sprint Cup preliminaries this season.
Numerous fans had been hurt last year when a blocking incident between Smith and Keselowski began a sequence that sent Kyle Larson's car into the fence and shedding parts through a crossover gate it damaged.
Patrick had put herself in position to at least hope to exploit a late wreck by recovering from a brutal start. After falling to 30th by Lap 5, she and Turner Scott Motorsports teammate Dylan Kwasniewski had formed a four-car drafting group with Matt Kenseth and pushed to the verge of the top 10.
Kwasniewski, a rookie, finished eighth and the third TSM driver, Larson, finished 10th.
If there was any benefit for Patrick in racing the Daytona opener for the fifth time, it was perhaps in reputation. Kwasniewski lauded her Friday for guiding his No. 31 Chevrolet though a clump of cars on the backstretch in the first-ever use of NASCAR's new group qualifying format.
"I was looking at this sea of cars," Kwasniewski said. "It looked like an army in there. Coming up to it, I was like, 'I don't know how we're going to navigate through this. We might get blocked out.' But somehow [Patrick] picked it just right.
"She shot the middle really good, and we were able to get through there cleanly. I was amazed we got through there, not only that we put up that fast of a lap. She did a great job of guiding us though there safely, and it was definitely a team effort to put up these fast times."
But for Saturday, that melon-colored car was logjammed.