Danica Patrick finishes frustration-free 19th
Many drivers who come to Bristol Motor Speedway seeking redemption or understanding leave more flummoxed or frustrated than before. Although the .533-mile track has lost some of its pit-fight sensibility since a revamping of the concrete banking opened more lines for racing, lap times are fast and traffic is thick. Those without a sleek car and the experience to deploy it often spend a few hours wallowing in frustration while driving around what looks like a football stadium.
Danica Patrick was the exception Saturday despite her finishing position, starting 27th and finishing 19th, two laps down, in the Ford EcoBoost 300. Patrick, in the fourth race of her first full-time season in the Nationwide Series, managed to avoid calamity as well as can be expected at Bristol and improved three spots to 12th in the driver standings.
"I would have liked to have been a little bit quicker, would have liked to have been able to pass some more cars, but we made it to the end this time," Patrick said in a postrace television interview. "Any of the short tracks I do, if I can just get to the end and make some progress to the end, that's good."
So compared with her only other Bristol experience, this was good, indeed. Last spring at the Tennessee track, Patrick had been running inside the top 20 but finished 33rd after being bumped by Ryan Truex in a benign incident and sent into the wall with 53 laps remaining.
For the first time this season, Patrick finished in relative proximity to her rookie JR Motorsports teammate, Cole Whitt, who started 14th and finished 16th, a lap down.
"It takes very, very consistent concentration to get through and not make mistakes," Patrick said. "I have to work on getting faster and qualifying further up the grid and getting a little bit better of a race pace."
Through four Nationwide races this season, Patrick has finished 38th (Daytona), 21st (Phoenix), 12th (Las Vegas) and 19th on Saturday in a sampling of different types of tracks. Daytona is a 2.5-mile superspeedway, Phoenix a 1-mile D-shaped oval, Las Vegas a 1.5-mile intermediate more representative of the broader schedule and Bristol a .533-mile bull ring.
She has qualified 30th, 12th and 27th since winning the pole at Daytona.
Elliott Sadler, whom Patrick approached for information on running a full Nationwide campaign at Daytona in February, won for the second time in four races this season. For Patrick, such hot streaks are not yet realistic, and she admits it. She knows racing well on short tracks such as Bristol and Martinsville is an acquired skill, and she was unashamedly looking for advice before the green flag.
"Any words of wisdom here?" she asked over team radio after a microphone check.
"Race the racetrack," came the answer from spotter Rick Carelli.
For the next 298 laps, with her No. 7 Chevrolet -- resplendent with shamrocks against its typical swathes of green -- handling reasonably close to her liking, Patrick managed traffic and the track under Carelli's constant coaching.
Don't overdrive corners. Don't overuse brakes. Let the car do the work.
Despite making methodical progress through the field, holding 23rd place after 30 laps, Patrick was overtaken by the leaders on Lap 50.
Caught in traffic later in the race, Patrick was unleashed by Carelli to use her bumper to move any unyielding driver, another learned skill not utilized in IndyCar, in which contact often is detrimental to both cars.
"If you can't get him, then bump him," Carelli radioed.
"Tryin,'" she replied, the exertion apparent by her tone.
When a caution ended the sequence, she radioed, amused, "I was f---ing aimin' for that rear end."
Patrick worked her way to just one lap down with six other cars with 80 laps remaining and was attempting to pass Tayler Malsam before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. used a crafty pick move to not only send her another lap down but take the lead with 75 left. Spotter chatter revealed a few drivers had been annoyed with Patrick during the race, but that is not unusual for Bristol, regardless of the driver.
The remainder of Patrick's race was relatively uneventful -- for Bristol -- with Kyle Busch contacting the wall in front of her and the No. 7 Chevrolet bumping a car from behind because, she said, it was "hard on those brakes."
And then the lesson was over. At least this time she made it to the end.
"Thanks, guys, we finished," she said.