In first race at Atlanta, Danica Patrick 13th
Danica Patrick's first stock car race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was very much like many of her previous Nationwide Series starts this season.
She ran toward the front for a while when the No. 7 Chevrolet's handling was to her liking. She ran in the middle for a while when it was not. She ran over something. Someone ran into her. She finished 13th and began working on the next task.
"We'll get 'em tomorrow," spotter Tab Boyd said.
She'll do it all over again Sunday, she hopes without the running over and the colliding, when she makes her fifth Sprint Cup start of the season from the 23rd position.
Patrick entered the two-race Atlanta weekend coming off a ninth-place Nationwide finish at Bristol Motor Speedway and heading into what statistically should be a strong final segment of the schedule. She entered with an average finish of 11.5 on 1.5-mile superspeedways such as Atlanta, with six of that distance remaining after this weekend.
After Saturday night, Patrick has produced 16 of 18 career Nationwide top-15s at tracks 1.5 miles in length or more, including a season-best eighth at Texas this spring.
Patrick's weekend began modestly enough, though, with handling woes on the abrasive, finicky and weathered Atlanta Motor Speedway asphalt. She qualified 17th and logged 133 laps of practice in Nationwide and Cup activity entering the race. Atlanta was the last track on the Nationwide circuit that she had never raced.
Kevin Harvick's dominating race car put her a lap down by Lap 48, but she gained enough comfort over long green-flag runs to stay out after most of the field had pitted under green-flag conditions, and climbed to third on Lap 51.
Patrick surrendered the spot soon after, cycling through the field to 15th when she pitted. Handling quickly became a concern again, with Patrick telling crew chief Tony Eury Jr. over team radio that the wheel felt "darty" and that the rear of the car was "bouncing."
Patrick was 12th, though lapped, after another pit stop under caution on Lap 65. Then she ran over the husk of tire that sloughed from Denny Hamlin's car and was rolling through Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 83. For Patrick, who had a piece of metal go through her radiator and end her race at Fontana, Calif., and ran over a shoe thrown on the course at Montreal -- though it didn't hurt the car -- the incident was sublime but not unexpected.
"Sorry, it was either that or spin out," she said over team radio. "I couldn't turn that hard up there.
"We hit every other damn thing this year, we might as well hit a tire carcass, too."
The tire did little damage. Patrick remained on track and took the wave-around instead, allowing her to return to the lead lap, in 14th position. She fell quickly off the pace of Harvick. After Eury carped "Pick it up, 12 seconds behind already in three laps," she began probing the track for new lines with better grip, although becoming increasingly alarmed with the car's handling.
Patrick, who had advanced to 13th but had just been lapped by Harvick again by the next caution, described her car as "five out of five loose," or in jeopardy of wrecking through turns. A subsequent pit stop improved the car and allowed her to move to eighth with 19 laps to go before her final pit stop.
She was 13th after a restart with eight laps remaining when James Buescher's No. 30 Chevrolet slid up in front of her and nosed into the wall, sending her down the track for a broadside impact with Mike Bliss.
Patrick said, "I didn't mean to take him out," before Boyd assured her she was innocent. She pitted for a final set of tires and rode out a 13th-place finish.
JR Motorsports vice president Kelley Earnhardt-Miller was apparently pleased, congratulating her in a tweet and adding, "She held her ground!"
On Sunday, in the heavier, higher-horsepower Sprint Cup cars, she'll try to do it again.