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Patrick finishes an impressive 12th in first Martinsville race
Danica Patrick talks to the media after finishing 12th in her first ever appearance at Martinsville Speedway. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
Monday, April 8, 2013
By DOUG POWELL - Bulletin Sports Writer
Martinsville Speedway is a short track known to be tough and challenging for first-time drivers. It was the general consensus from drivers, media, and fans then that it was going to be difficult on a rookie driver like Danica Patrick making her debut at Martinsville.
Even she didn’t have high expectations for Sunday’s race when speaking before Friday’s qualifying.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be really challenging and probably a little overwhelming right at first with all the other cars out there up to speed so quickly,” Patrick said. “I’ve always felt like the more expectation level that exists and the longer you’ve been around, that’s when I get more nervous because it’s time.”
But when her time came on Sunday at the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the rookie exceeded those expectations, finishing 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race.
What made her finish more rewarding was how she came back from a slew of setbacks starting in qualifying and continuing through the majority of the race.
“We were two laps down at one point, so I’m probably most proud of getting those two laps back and then running strong until the end there on the lead lap,” Patrick said.
The expectations remained low after qualifying and practice. Her times proved that it might be a long weekend for Patrick and the Stewart-Haas Racing crew.
Patrick placed 33rd in qualifying with a time of 19.536.
To make matters worse, the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet had to replace her engine on Saturday night which made NASCAR penalize her by placing her at the back of the lineup to begin the STP Gas Booster 500.
“Obviously I had to start from the back because I decided I was going to go from fourth (gear) to third and coming up to speed on my out lap in practice, and that’s not the normal progression,” Patrick said. “I got 11.4 on the revs, and they were like, we should probably just take that out. Unfortunately, I had to start from the rear.”
Her race didn’t start quickly, as expected, and Patrick went threw growing pains to begin the race.
On lap 15, Patrick spun out after getting too far under FAS Lane Racing Driver Ken Schrader.
“I had a spin at the very beginning,” Patrick said. “I don’t know how many laps in, 10, 20, something like that, and felt like I kind of got pinched down, but I also got in pretty hard. When you’ve got the momentum going that way, it was sort of a perfect storm.”
Struggling to figure out the track’s tendencies, Patrick raced near the back of the pack, passing a few here and there, but not making much ground.
As the 148th lap came up, Jeff Gordon passed her for a second time. Now behind two laps to Gordon, the leader at the time, Patrick and her team needed to change their gameplan if they were going to contend in the race.
“I would say that I learned pretty early,” Patrick said. “I was backing up my corner and kind of going it easy and trying to kind of save everything. I was getting really loose doing it, so once I finally got back to going in hard again and loading the front up like I was before, it seemed like the car got really balanced again. I learned that kind of easy, and that’s kind of what helped me get more comfortable.”
Soon Patrick, who managed to keep her car fairly damage free all day, benefited from the wave around rule and was able to get a lap back.
On Lap 466, Brian Vickers bumped Patrick, pushing her into Dale Earnhardt Jr., which caused him to spin out of control and led to a caution. The accident resulted in STP Gas Booster runner-up Clint Bowyer passing Jeff Gordon for second, and Patrick was able to move ahead as well.
“She pissed off two or three guys, I think,” Bowyer said.
But Patrick’s day wasn’t done there either as she passed teammate and boss Tony Stewart of Stewart-Haas Racing on the 481st lap, and maintained a lead over another teammate, Ryan Newman, for the afternoon.
Finally, with ten laps to go, Patrick decided to ride it out with a chance to pit during a caution, and she was able to move up to as high as 11th — her highest place of the day.
After a three-car scuffle on the final lap she was able to hold her position and finish 12th.
“Well, I was defending and I got beat up on,” Patrick said, “and then I held it down and just kept digging on the outside.”
Patrick was the highest finishing rookie in her first trip to the Speedway. She is now 26th in the points standings with 119 points and is 112 points behind the leader (Jimmie Johnson).
“She came a long way from yesterday,” Bowyer said. “She was extremely fast.”
Patrick was not only extremely fast, but she was also faster than her boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who finished 25th.
“Actually I decided I’d fly back to Chicago and he’s going to drive back,” Patrick said. “That was the plan all along. But if he’s not back at the bus when I get back there, that means he’ll be mad.”
Stenhouse may be mad, but Patrick won’t be. She is satisfied with her first experience in Martinsville.
“You know, you have good days and you have bad days,” Patrick said, “and we’ve definitely had our fair share of bad days the last few weeks, so it was nice to have a decent one.”