Bungled pit stop dooms Danica
Restrictor-plate racing proved to be a fickle affinity for Danica Patrick again on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, as a race she had been anticipating for weeks and managing well for the first 160 laps came undone with a mistake.
In the last of four restrictor-plate races of the season, Patrick was among the contenders with just 28 laps left. But her ability to draft and maneuver racing lines was undone by one of the more mundane but crucial aspects of plate racing -- negotiating a pit stop.
Patrick followed the lead pack of cars with which she was drafting from the high line and toward pit road on Lap 161 of 188 in a bid for fuel and tires, but she was unable to slow sufficiently. She slid through the grass, interfered with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth -- Kenseth labeled her a "derelict" -- missed her pit box and incurred a penalty for exceeding the 55 mph speed limit.
I’m sorry I missed pit road, but I about [expletive] crashed with two cars on the way in.Danica Patrick
She was incensed on team radio, saying, "I'm sorry I missed pit road, but I about [expletive] crashed with two cars on the way in."
After being informed of the infraction, she responded, "Because I [expletive] went so fast coming in. … We need to show more organization when it comes to pitting on speedways."
After making three passes through the pits, she saw her last, best, most likely chance for another encouraging moment this season sputter in frustration. She had been running within the top 10 but wound up 33rd.
Patrick's signature moment thus far in NASCAR was scripted in the Daytona 500 this February, when as a Sprint Cup rookie she won the pole, led five laps, was running third in the final stretches and finished eighth, the highest finish ever by a female in NASCAR's prestige event.
Her comfort with restrictor-plate racing was apparent before that historic run. It's partly because the high banks and mashed accelerators that define racing at Daytona and Talladega fit her style, and partly, she admits, because the unpredictable nature of drafting mitigates aptitude and experience and often produces surprise contenders.
Restrictor-plate likely will remain one of Patrick's favorite forms of stock car racing because she already has proved she has the nerve, skill and equipment to compete. She continues to build drafting relationships like any newcomer. And, like scores of other NASCAR drivers with the nerve, skill, equipment and trust of the field, she continues to add frustrating moments in a form of racing in which statistics sometimes do not reflect performance.
Veteran Kurt Busch, Patrick's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing next season, can attest to that, having pushed a teammate to a Daytona 500 win and finished second on plate tracks three times without a win.
Patrick already has begun building her own collection of frustrations and successes as she awaits her breakthrough. She has won Cup and Nationwide poles at Daytona, and qualified fourth last season at Talladega in a Nationwide race.
However, time trials for both Cup races at the rural Alabama track were rained out this season, forcing her to start 23rd by practice times in both races. Oddly, she finished 33rd each time, after being caught in a late wreck in the spring event.
And in the second stop at Daytona, for the Coke Zero 400 in July, Patrick was seventh on a restart with seven laps to go but got caught in a final-lap crash and finished 14th.
As for Sunday's frustration, she reiterated in a postrace team report: "We just didn't communicate well on that final pit stop. We were on the high side and couldn't get down to where we needed to be to pit. We were trying to pit with [Jimmie Johnson] and [Dale Earnhardt Jr.].
"I know it's a challenge for the spotters. … You have a split second to make a decision, and we should have made another lap. We'll discuss it and learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again. It's disappointing, and none of us feel good about it. You win as a team and lose as a team."