At 29th, Danica Patrick ties best Sprint finish
Danica Patrick's foray back into the deep end of NASCAR's talent pool yielded 326 laps of knowledge and, with a 29th-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, a tie for her best career Sprint Cup finish.
Patrick, who was contesting her fifth of 10 races at NASCAR's highest level before making her full-time series launch in 2013, finished six laps behind winner Denny Hamlin. But in what is in essence a live-action test against the top drivers in the sport, she was able to finish every lap and brought the No. 10 Chevrolet back to the hauler unscathed.
And for this season, that's good enough.
"Take a deep breath. It's over," race strategist Greg Zipadelli said over team radio on the cool-down lap.
More tracks similar to Atlanta will soon follow, however, as much of the NASCAR schedule is run on tracks of 1.5-miles. Experience on them, therefore, is crucial.
Patrick's race was relatively uneventful but not without effort. She and Zipadelli worked most of the night on finding the proper feel in the race car, a difficult proposition on Atlanta's high banks swathed in weathered, abrasive asphalt. Long green-flag runs provided a sometimes unnerving lesson in tire management. During one stint Patrick was stunned to learn the degrading tires causing poor handling had only been on for roughly 25 laps.
Equally important on Sunday was Patrick's ability to avoid collision, which has been tricky at times this season. Even on Saturday night in the Nationwide Series race, in which she finished 13th, Patrick ran down the rolling outer skin of a tire. On Sunday, her main objects to avoid were sliding race cars, and on two occasions she was able to dodge Casey Mears, and Jimmie Johnson on Lap 269 of a scheduled 325.
Patrick started 23rd but quickly regressed to 35th. She remained in that general vicinity for much of the race. A humming pace set during extended green flag runs by Kevin Harvick had her lapped by the 34th trip around the oval, and by the midpoint of the race left just a dozen cars on the lead lap.
The separating of the field through attrition eventually put her on her own lap in the final 100 laps, further allowing her and Zipadelli to focus solely on their goals. Then-leader Martin Truex Jr. lapped her for the final time with 16 laps left. She was able to advance from 34th to 29th after a series of mechanical problems or crashes eliminated the cars of Carl Edwards, Johnson and Ryan Newman.
Falling deep into the field early actually seemed to provide enrichment opportunities as Patrick was able to attempt to mimick the race lines of teammate/team owner Tony Stewart and Harvick. After marveling how well Harvick's car turned one of the times he lapped her, Patrick was later able to pick up speed after he passed again, with her quipping she was "channeling" him.
Her work-study program irked her future competitors on a few occasions, specifically when she blocked Clint Bowyer into his pit box early in the race, causing him to fall from eight to 17th in the running order. Later, Johnson cursed while working past Patrick on the way to the pits.
Patrick's finish tied her career-best, set in her previous Cup race at the .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.