Late surge catapults Danica Patrick to 10th
Danica Patrick had one of the best seats in the house for the virtual end of the Nationwide Series season Saturday, staring through the windshield of her No. 7 Chevrolet at the crippled mess that was title-contender Elliott Sadler's car. Under a red flag with two scheduled laps remaining, parked on the banking at Phoenix International Raceway, Patrick was upbeat and chatty as her season wound down to these few remaining laps and the season finale at Homestead next week.
She bantered with spotter Tab Boyd about why cars were parked like little checkmarks during red flags, about how her car was slowly drifting toward Sadler's. In just a few minutes they could discuss her green-white-checker leap into a top-10 finish, her fourth of the season.
Patrick, who has struggled in her first full-time Nationwide season to maintain and gain positions on restarts, recouped six spots in the final three-lap segment of the race to finish 10th and continue a late-season push into 2013 and her full-time Sprint Cup debut. That she had never finished better than 17th in four previous stock car starts in her adopted home market was a bonus. Patrick has finished 10th twice, 11th and 14th in her last four races this season.
"Way to go after it there," crew chief Ryan Pemberton said after Patrick crossed the start/finish line, before informing her of her result.
Patrick, who had counted the cars in front of her, thought she had finished 11th and responded that the car was "definitely my best short-track car of the year."
Patrick remained in 10th place in the Nationwide standings, now just 10 points from ninth-place Brian Scott.
In making her late burst, Patrick atoned for an earlier restart folly. She took the green flag sixth with 40 laps remaining after eschewing a pit stop opportunity but squandered the benefits of Pemberton's call when she was caught in a wash of cars, including Austin Dillon's on the restart, foundering quickly to 15th.
She recouped two spots in the next 15 laps, fell to 19th while mired in a massive clump of traffic, but was able to regain 15th by another restart with 14 laps remaining. She restarted 16th after Sadler, tied for the points lead, was involved in an incident that likely destroyed his chances for a first NASCAR title.
Patrick qualified 14th and began complaining about a "pulsating" brake pedal from the early laps of the race. She seemed otherwise pleased with the car, saying it was "coming to" her on Lap 11.
She advanced to 13th after a two-tire pit stop on Lap 44 and soon after became one of the quickest on the track, running lap times commensurate with the leaders.
Patrick defended ninth place from Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap 55 -- he took it eight laps later -- but passed Scott to penetrate the top 10 again on Lap 129. A well-timed caution allowed Pemberton to provide Patrick with enough fuel to reach the scheduled distance, skip a pit stop and advance her to sixth for the final 40 laps.
Patrick had never finished better than 17th at Phoenix, her 21st-place finish there in the second race this spring furthering a brutal early-season stretch in which she was quickly forced to reassess her realistic goals in her first full NASCAR campaign. The end of that campaign quickly approaching in the windshield, she had something better to talk about Saturday.