Danica's debut: An up-and-down day
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Back to reality. From jubilation to frustration in one week.
That sums it up for Danica Patrick, who learned Saturday how it feels to see your day end at Daytona in a wreck not of your making.
Patrick's Nationwide Series debut ended after 69 laps, when she was unable to avoid a typical big wreck on the historic superspeedway.
"I was just caught up in an accident like so many other people get at these big speedways," Patrick said. "I think we would have finished well if we would have finished, which was my goal. But as you can see, that's easier said than done."
One week ago, she was the darling of Daytona after an impressive sixth-place run in an ARCA race for her stock-car debut. Patrick never ran close to the front this time.
Welcome to NASCAR, and take some notes after a 35th-place finish.
So let's examine the day in more detail. What did she do well? What did she do poorly?
First, the good points:
1. Staying out of early trouble: Moments before the green flag, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a message for Patrick from his No. 88 Chevy: "Have fun and trust your instincts."
She did. Seven cars wrecked in front of her on Lap 7. Patrick throttled back and held her line, zooming past Trevor Bayne's mangled car just in time as it started sliding down off the wall.
"I don't know how I didn't [wreck] but I didn't," Patrick told crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
The same can't be said of Chrissy Wallace, who crashed on the first lap. But Patrick kept it clean in the middle of the pack when the race started.
2. Not overdriving the car: Patrick started 15th, but quickly fell back after avoiding the early accident. She dropped to the tail end of the lead lap, running 34th at one point.
She did it on purpose.
"I look at this as two mini-races between in the first stint and the second stint," Patrick said. "The first one wasn't really pretty. I definitely dropped back, but I wasn't really comfortable.
"I wasn't about to go firing it in to get back to where I started and crash. I didn't feel like the car was going to give me what I wanted if I pushed it any harder."
Smart driver. She showed patience. She didn't panic when the No. 7 Chevy wasn't handling well.
3. Relaying good information to Eury: It's clear after two races that Patrick is building a good working relationship with Eury. She relays detailed information that helps Eury explain to her what she needs to do.
"It's right on the edge when I'm right behind people," Patrick said during a caution. "If I back off about a car length it feels 10 times better."
Eury: "If you have a car length between you a car in front of you going into the turn, you want to hustle your car and maintain that."
4. Gaining ground later in the race: Patrick raced from 23rd to as high as fifth in the final 17 laps of the ARCA race last week.
The Nationwide race didn't have that kind of lightning bolt streak to the front, but Patrick was moving up after her crew adjusted the car to her liking. She moved up from 27th to 21st before a crash in front of her was unavoidable.
"We made a stop and made an adjustment and I got more comfortable," Patrick said. "I was running in the pack and felt much better. I was more confident. At the end of the run I felt like the balance came back to me. I took it to the limit of where I feel comfortable and what the car is giving me."
Patrick was charging, but moments later cars were crashing and spinning in front of her. Patrick tried to play it the same way she did in the earlier wreck, holding her line and hoping to slide through.
This time, she wasn't so lucky. Patrick almost made it by, but got clipped hard on the right front quarter-panel, damaging the suspension and ending her day.
"I could see something happening out of [Turn] 4," she said. "Some car got sideways. I slowed down and I thought it was under control, then all of a sudden you see smoke and I literally couldn't see a thing.
"That's the problem. If we could figure how to make the tires have no smoke there would be a lot less crashed race cars. Unfortunately, that's the inevitable of what's going to happen here. It's a product of racing so close together. You don't give yourself any gap to take an open space or see anything."
Just part of the drill at Daytona, which Patrick learned the hard way.
Stuff happens. Ask the boss. Earnhardt hit the wall and flipped the car on its roof 23 laps after Patrick's accident.
"That was expensive," Earnhardt said. "We'll have to go back and balance the books after this. That was a tough day for JR Motorsports."
Wrecks happen at Daytona for everybody.
5. Composure: Patrick kept her cool, in the car and out of the car.
She hasn't always done that while racing in the IndyCar Series.
But Patrick hasn't shown her dark side the past two weeks. She remained calm in the car when things didn't go her way. And she did a remarkable job of accommodating a frenzied media shadowing her every move.
Patrick did four separate interviews in the garage after the race -- live TV, live radio, a group of broadcast journalists and a group of print journalists.
So there were a lot of positives out of her 10 days at Daytona, but she also had some low moments Saturday:
1. Pit stops: Her first stop wasn't too bad, but Patrick almost over-revved the motor on the exit, something Eury warned her about.
Maybe that was on her mind when she made her second stop. Patrick stalled the car leaving the pits and needed a push from the crew. The lesson? Don't overthink it.
2. Bump drafting: Or rather a lack of bump drafting. Patrick kept her distance from the cars in front of her.
She was playing it safe, but a little too safe. Patrick would have had an easier time moving forward if she stayed a little closer to the rear of the bumper of the car ahead. That will come with experience, but these are restrictor-plate situations that don't come up at other tracks besides Talladega.
Add it all up and the positives far outweigh the negatives for Patrick's entrance into the NASCAR world.
"Today was more of a tough day," she said. "I wish I had run up front from the beginning, but I didn't and that just proves how tough it is out here and how good these drivers really are."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at email@example.com.
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