Battling for fourth, Danica Patrick finishes 12th
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- Tony Eury Jr. wasn't so much walking Road America's pit road as prowling it. Backpack slung over shoulder, notes binder wedged in the crook of his meaty arm, his eyes were slits under a cap brim, and they were tracing the movements of the man who had just crawled from a race car and ripped a balaclava from his sweaty shaved head. Their glares interlocked. They didn't actually touch, which was likely fortunate for both, but Danica Patrick's Nationwide Series crew chief leaned in close for emphasis.
Whether Jacques Villeneuve deciphered much of what Eury said in his North Carolina drawl amid the growl of passing race cars is unclear. All he really needed to discern was "a------'' and "why do you have to come here and run over people?"
Villeneuve, a former Formula One and Indianapolis 500 champion who moonlights in NASCAR road races, rebuffed Eury, his eyes widening, and stormed away. He returned to make another point but Eury, already walking away, ignored him.
Eury's grievance was simple: Patrick had raced hard and smart for almost the entire Nationwide race Saturday, led fleetingly if not officially, was battling to retain a fourth-place spot on the final lap, when Villeneuve made hard contact from behind to send her spinning into the gravel pit at Turn 5. Villeneuve, who led 10 laps before spinning off course midway through the race, finished sixth. Patrick finished 12th.
Eury, who has grown up with and worked for one of NASCAR's fabled families as nephew of the late Dale Earnhardt, said Villeneuve disgraces his own bloodlines, which include his late father, Gilles, and namesake uncle.
"With a name like that and the history his family has, and for him to come here and not have any respect for anybody, it's like he's not a real race car driver in my book because he doesn't have the respect for what his name should mean," he said.
Patrick was serene, though disappointed at not having the result to validate her effort. She said if Max Papis, who finished fourth, had not raced her with such abandon in Turn 5 in the waning laps, then they each might have been able to run off from the pack that eventually caught them, securing solid finishes for themselves.
"We weren't able to just get away, even though I felt faster and I felt like I was just right on his tail every lap," she said. "I would have liked to just had a little bit of calm for a lap and just have him follow me and see if we can gap the group behind us because where Villeneuve goes there tends to be cars that have problems, whether it's his fault or the other cars' fault or whether it's just stock car racing at the end of the race. You guys can make a decision on what happened there at the end."
Patrick was not Villeneuve's sole casualty Saturday, but arguably his most aggrieved.
"It's like indoor karting," said runner-up Michael McDowell, who was bumped by Villeneuve earlier. "You never know when your buddy is going to run you over."
A week after claiming Patrick was a target of "dirty tricks" and questioning the respect she is afforded by her peers, Eury said the incident was purely a result of Villeneuve's driving style.
"It's got nothing to do with her," Eury said. "Every time [Villeneuve] is behind you, you wonder if you're about to get run over, and today happened to be our day."
It looked to be their day in a much more positive sense for most of the 50-lap race around the rolling, 4-mile course. Patrick started 10th but raced her way toward the front with a fast No. 7. She passed for the lead on Lap 20 but missed her braking zone in Turn 5 and fell back to fourth. A Lap 34 caution allowed the field to top off fuel and run the final 14 laps within the pit window, assuring a straightforward contest of best car and best driver.
In what Patrick considered one of her more productive and invigorating sequences of the season, she restarted third after a caution and immediately passed for second. Her bid for a first NASCAR win or besting her gender-best finish of fourth last season at Las Vegas was soon complicated by the massing forces of racers behind her. McDowell, third-place finisher Ron Fellows and Papis overtook her within the next five laps, though she and Papis exchanged positions numerous times in the ensuing laps. Her battle with Papis for fourth place allowed a pack of other cars -- including Villeneuve -- to catch up with two laps remaining, however. Villeneuve tagged Patrick coming down the hill toward the sharp left angle and braking zone of Turn 5.
Villeneuve, too, blamed Papis, in his case for attempting to "put me in the grass just when we hit the brakes" from behind, and said he had "nothing to do" with the incident despite the obvious contact.
Patrick insisted she would concentrate on the largely positive aspect of the afternoon.
"It's just a shame because we ran so well, and it would be nice to come home with a top-5," she said, "not only for the team, who did a good job in the pits and got me out ahead of everyone every time, and for Tony Jr. who has been keeping his head down and keeping with it and we're not getting good results."