Danica gets an 'A' from crew chief Eury
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brendan Gaughan couldn't find his car as he made his way up pit road before the start of Saturday's Nationwide Series race. It was as if it had been swallowed up and disappeared below the concrete surface at Daytona International Speedway.
In a way, it had been.
It was swallowed up by the huge crowd of media and fans gathered around a bright green No. 7 Chevrolet. In the middle of the crowd was Danica Patrick, the IndyCar Series star making her NASCAR debut.
A few hours later, Patrick was swallowed up again.
First in a wreck that ended her day after 69 laps.
Then in the garage, by the largest group of media that crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has seen around a driver, which is impressive since he spent most of his career around Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Oh, yeah," Eury said. "That's crazy."
In between all the craziness Patrick quietly had a successful start to what three years from now could lead to a Sprint Cup ride. She gained valuable experience in the draft against many of the sport's top drivers, survived her first stall-out, successfully dodged one crash and learned the patience needed when she's not comfortable and the car isn't handling just right.
She also learned how to handle crowds much larger than anything she's been around in IndyCar.
"Everything that's going on, you have to give her an A," Eury said.
Let's take you back to the start of the race. The crowd was gone and Patrick was strapped into her car waiting for the green flag to wave. She was a bit concerned about not keeping up to the pace car until Eury assured her she was.
"Be really patient," he said.
Static broke up the message. Eury said it was the same way on his end but would be corrected quickly.
"Take a good deep breath here," Eury radioed as Patrick approached the start line.
Before Patrick -- who began 15th in the JR Motorsports car -- could breathe again, caution was out. Chrissy Wallace, the other woman in the field, wrecked coming off Turn 4 on the first lap.
"Made a little bit of progress on the outside line," Patrick radioed. "I don't know."
As the restart approached Patrick asked whether it would be single- or double-file, not remembering all restarts are double-file. She asked many such elementary questions throughout the day.
"I had to make sure I'm up on my game," Eury said. "She asked me questions I take for granted. A lot of times I have to check myself and make sure. I'm sure if I went over in the IndyCar Series it would be the same way for me."
Three laps after the restart, caution was out again. This time the crash happened directly in front of Patrick. She held her line high, hoping all the damaged cars would slide to the bottom of the track like Robert Duvall promised Tom Cruise they would in the 1990 movie "Days of Thunder."
"That was crazy," Patrick said, breathing a sigh of relief and seeming to laugh at the same time. "I don't know how I didn't hit anything, but I didn't."
She then explained further how she got on the brakes and the car turned sideways just a bit before she emerged undamaged.
"That was interesting," Eury said. "You did the right thing there. You kept your composure. There's going to be more."
There was, but we'll get to that later.
Fourteen laps in, Patrick wasn't happy with the handling. The harder she tried to stay tight in line, the best and easiest way to get around the 2.5-mile track, the further she fell behind.
"Keep it tucked in," spotter Chris Ross said as Patrick slid to 25th. "Try to stay with the pack. Try to get in line."
Patrick couldn't. She continued to fall off the pace, sliding to 34th 21 laps in.
"It keeps sliding up the track," she radioed. "A little loose off of 4."
By lap 25 she was 33rd. Three laps later, 34th.
Bobby Gerhardt, who won the ARCA race this past Saturday in Patrick's stock car debut, attempted to pass on the outside. Ross asked his driver to tuck in and hang on.
"Think of you as a trailer and he's a truck and you've got to stay with him," he said.
Patrick again tried, but it wasn't nearly as easy as the ARCA race in which she finished sixth.
"When they told me to keep pushing it, trust me, nobody wants to push it more than the driver," she later said. "I'm the one being looked at out there. I really was taking what the car was giving me."
Eury tried to explain in simpler terms, using the Slinky as an example.
"You want to keep it as consistent of a gap as you possibly can," he said.
That became the goal: Practice on keeping the gap.
Patrick fell further behind, finally making her first pit stop under green on Lap 47. It went smoothly -- with the exception of revving her engine a bit too much on the exit.
"Easy, easy on that motor," Eury said.
By now Patrick was a lap down, and before she could tell if the adjustments had worked caution was out again.
Another first: her first Lucky Dog.
"Whew!" Patrick said, when told she was back on the lead lap.
On Lap 53, still under caution, Eury brought the car in for a splash of gas.
Another first: Patrick stalled out exiting.
The first time I kept it straight and they go below me. This time I held it straight hoping they spin out of the way and they didn't.” -- Danica Patrick
"Sorry, too easy," she said.
Eury later chuckled, realizing one of Patrick's goals was to make it through Speedweeks without that.
"These motors are really easy to damage when you do that," Eury said. "That second stop I was, 'Hey, really easy when you leave it.' She was a little too easy. That's just one of those things she'll learn and get better at."
Patrick restarted in 27th. The adjustments were working. She was getting comfortable, having moved to 24th by Lap 63.
"Nice job there, 7," her spotter said. "Nice job."
Eury agreed. Referring to her simply as "D," the nickname he chose after she requested one earlier in the week so he wouldn't have to say "Danica" or "ma'am," which he still did a few times.
Then came the largest wreck of the day, a 12-car melee that Patrick thought she could avoid by using the same strategy as before. Instead, she ran over debris on the frontstretch, made a right-hand turn into the wall and spun into the grass.
Her day was done. The control arm on the right front was broken, along with several other parts. Eury -- understanding experience in the best equipment is the goal as his student undertakes a 13-race schedule -- told the crew to take the car to the garage.
"The first time I kept it straight and they go below me," Patrick said. "This time I held it straight hoping they spin out of the way and they didn't."
She later blamed it on not being able to see for all the smoke coming off the tires. She suggested there would be fewer wrecked cars if somebody could invent a smokeless tire.
"I was just starting to get it, too," Patrick said.
That's what she will take from this day. That's what she should take from this day. She improved, and that's the goal at this point.
"Just how much better she drove from the first stint to the second stint," Eury said. "She was really catching on to it. I hate for it to end like that."
And now it's on to California, where there will be a completely different set of challenges, beginning with having only two hours of practice to get ready.
There also will be large crowds like these that were larger than Eury ever imagined.
"This definitely is higher than the Dale Jr. deal," Eury said. "The way she's handling it, she's doing great. We'll just keep trying and make her better than she is."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2010 Daytona 500
The 52nd running of the Daytona 500 is in the books. Live the thrill all over again.