Danica The Show-Stopper In Daytona
Daytona Beach, Fla. – Danica Mania arrived at Daytona during the ARCA 200. Although difficult to pinpoint the exact time of its arrival, it began aproximately on lap 53. That’s when stock car rookie Danica Patrick saved her Chevy after getting knocked into the tri-oval grass and began a comeback through the pack.
In a race won by Bobby Gerhart, now a record six-time winner in this event, stock car rookie Patrick stole the show. Patrick charged from 24th place back into the lead draft, demonstrating the Indy Racing League competitor can handle a stock car and traffic.
“I definitely learned how to use the fenders a little bit,” said Patrick, who was mobbed by the media and fans after her charge ended in sixth. She narrowly dodged one incident early in the race before contact from Nelson Piquet Jr. sent her driving and spinning through the grass. But there was no crying.
“I think I felt the fenders. I’m not 100 percent sure I got hit in the (tri-oval) and in (Turns 1 and 2), but even if I did I don’t really care,” said a clearly pleased Patrick. “I know what it feels like now, what it’s like to get pushed up the track.”
The debut a success, the countdown began on the decision to be announced on Monday by JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley on whether to start Patrick in next Saturday’s 300-mile Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
“I’m really just thinking about today and what I learned and what I can do better,” said Patrick when asked about the prospect of stepping up to the Nationwide Series and competing against Sprint Cup regulars.
It was a fresh set of tires that enabled Patrick to charge to as high as fifth place after dropping to the rear. A decision to go back to the outside line stemmed her day-glo green Chevy tide.
“After we came back, which was really cool to come back to the top five again,” she said, “I thought, ‘I made it this far, let’s see what I can do.’ I just jumped up high but unfortunately not many takers came with me up there.”
Gerhart led 51 of 80 laps following a red flag period needed to repair the wall in Turn 4, where a heavy crash by rookie Jill George brought out the third of six cautions. Gerhardt was not challenged by runner-up Mark Thompson, who finished second by 0.230 seconds. Both veterans casually walked unimpeded to post-race interviews through the garage where Patrick was soon mobbed. But Gerhart said he appreciated the IRL regular’s presence in the 43-car field at the annual Daytona preliminary for stock car racing’s equivalent of AA league.
“I’m glad to see her here,” said 50-year-old Gerhart, who first came to Daytona from Pennsylvania to watch races with his parents before taking up driving. “It’s brought a lot of national attention to this series. There’s a hard core of racers here who race their guts out.”
Among those were Brazilian Piquet Jr. and Patrick. In a three-wide traffic at the exit of Turn 4, Patrick elected to hold her inside line and not “wuss out,” she said.
“I went to the inside and he was trying to drive back, to cut over to get back to the inside line again. I was there. I can’t go below the yellow line. So I just held my line. It collected us. I didn’t back off or give it up. I kept my foot in it and made him react to me, because I was on the inside.”
Prior to that, both rookies acquitted themselves well. Brazilian Piquet Jr. was in sixth place after starting seventh when the red flag flew. But he couldn’t get his Toyota to re-fire when racing resumed and fell to the rear for the re-start. Patrick, on the other hand, was soon beginning to fade from fifth place after crew chief Tony Eury Jr. elected a gas only pit stop.
Patrick’s JR Motorsports Chevy began pushing up the track in Turn 3, allowing pole winner James Buescher and then others to pass underneath. The lower groove “didn’t work out halfway through the race,” said Patrick, eventually overtaken by Piquet Jr. as he made his charge back through the field.
Following what was a non-crash through the grass and controlled spin that demonstrated Patrick can handle a stock car, Patrick got her wish for four fresh tires and began her charge.
“I was just working the outside line,” she said. “I know what Dale Jr. sees in this outside line. You don’t have to lift up there. Whether you’re fifth, sixth or 12th, when you’re down there you have to check up. When you’re on the outside you can really keep your foot in it. I had so much momentum going by people up there. I took a couple of chances and just kind of dove by people.”
In a race where six women started, not all were able to avoid incidents with the expertise of Indy 500 veteran Patrick. Fellow IndyCar driver Milka Duno was among those collected by an incident on lap 7. Ten laps later, Patrick, who started 12th, dodged another multi-car incident at the re-start by quickly moving up a lane in Turn 2, sustaining only a dented left rear quarter.
The race settled down but five laps after the next re-start, taking evasive action when Jesse Smith cut a tire George found the apron in Turn 4. Her Dodge then wobbled and hit the wall as her car began to lift off. She walked away from a demolished car that hit where the SAFER barrier meets the concrete wall, which required the red flag for repairs.
Alli Owens ran as high as third before her Chevy was collected in an incident on lap 77. She finished 23rd after a spin.
Patrick said she didn’t have any big surprises. “The car does get pretty loose when you get hit,” she said. “It can. That’s alright. I always tried to make sure if I hit someone it was in a straight line. I didn’t do it too much, only if I was doing a little bit of bump drafting.
“Everything surprised me a little bit,” she continued. “But nothing was crazy. I think that’s why I had fun. It was a little hectic when I got pushed up high and I dropped back. I was getting really loose and I was pushing on the exit. The handling was going off a little bit. I was saying, ‘I want some new tires.’”
She soon got her wish – as did those anxious to see just what Patrick could do in a stock car.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments