Patrick takes hard hit in stride
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As the No. 10 Chevrolet rolled to a stop Thursday, the front end destroyed after a horrific impact with the inside retaining wall, Danica Patrick let her crew know she was all right.
She did it with three simple words, two of which would make many blush.
The darling of Daytona International Speedway learned she can get caught up in somebody else's mess and showed she can drop expletives with the best of them in her first race in a Sprint Cup car.
She also learned that she can handle her own with the big boys of stock car racing.
Patrick entered the final lap in ninth place with 17 of the 25 cars that started the 150-mile qualifying race still on the track. She was on the inside lane that was moving. Her goal of finishing the race and gaining the respect of other drivers was in sight.
Patrick's car hit the wall with such force that it disintegrated much of the front end and ricocheted away. Patrick did all the right things, letting go of the steering wheel to avoid injuries to her thumbs and wrists.
Then she got mad. Not at Almirola, who was just as much a victim as she was. She got mad that she fell two turns short of completing her goal.
That's just her nature, and maybe why she has a chance to succeed where other women haven't.
"I'm just bummed out we didn't finish the last two corners," Patrick said.
At least the wreck didn't happen early, costing Patrick the valuable seat time she needs before Sunday's Daytona 500, when it will be much more hectic with 43 cars on the track.
And at least she didn't cause the wreck, which would have led to comments by some that she doesn't belong.
Nobody can say she doesn't belong from what we saw on this hot, humid day. She got as high as sixth 25 laps in and never once got rattled -- at least she didn't show it over the radio.
Her only fault was she didn't get bumper to bumper very often, the way you have to in pack racing to move up in the field.
"She didn't want to be the one to cause the wreck and kill the confidence of everybody else," crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. "There's guys out there that are racing that aren't in [the 500]. The last thing you want to do is take those guys out."
Overall, Patrick's Cup debut was a success. She finished 16th despite the crash, never panicked and never was the cause for another driver to panic.
"She's trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her that she's solid," said team co-owner Tony Stewart, who was credited with the win when the caution came out. "Today, she showed her poise in trying to make the right decisions. I thought she did a really good job. She just wants to gain the confidence of the other drivers right now."
I feel good. I really feel good. I feel comfortable. I feel confident. I feel like if things fall our way I can take the experience from today into Sunday.” -- Danica Patrick
"I thought she did fine," said Almirola, Patrick's former Nationwide Series teammate at JR Motorsports. "She always does fine."
The fans also seemed to appreciate Patrick's effort. They cheered and whistled for her just as loudly when she returned to the garage after a trip to the infield medical center as they did when she arrived before the race.
Patrick appeared loose all day, toying with crewmen who playfully blocked her path to driver introductions on pit road and smiling for interviews after regaining her composure from the wreck.
"I feel good," she said "I really feel good. I feel comfortable. I feel confident. I feel like if things fall our way I can take the experience from today into Sunday.
"It can be a good day."
Yes, Patrick still believes she can do the seemingly impossible and win the Great American Race. She continues to say that if Trevor Bayne could do it last year, why not her this year?
"Obviously, things that are out of your control can make it a bad day," Patrick said, "but that is kind of the excitement about racing at Daytona and the excitement about big pack racing."
Patrick spun everything positive she could out of the day, reminding it would have been much worse had the wreck happened in Saturday's Nationwide Series, where she is running for a title this season.
She also reminded that her Cup car hasn't been as fast as she hoped after a January test here.
"Maybe the backup car will be faster," Patrick said. "Maybe this is a blessing in disguise."
Maybe she will win.
Maybe she'll get mad.
But at least for a day, she proved there are no maybes on whether she belongs.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DNewtonespn.
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The 54th running of the Daytona 500 is in the books. What started as a new season of hope for all ended its first chapter with one of the most memorable events in NASCAR history.