Finish Puts Smile On Patrick’s, Team’s Faces
By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Entering the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season the motorsports community pointed to the demanding Martinsville Speedway as possibly Danica Patrick’s biggest challenge in her rookie year.
The flat, half-mile, paper-clipped short track had been the nightmare for many drivers, both rookies and veterans, throughout its storied history. That’s why veteran crew chief Tony Gibson began planning the Stewart-Haas Racing team’s battle plan for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 three months ago. In the end, Gibson’s preparation paid off as Patrick came from two laps down to finish 12th on the lead lap. In her first Martinsville outing, she claimed rookie honors for the race and exceeded her team’s goal, which had been to finish in the top-25. Even winning team owner Rick Hendrick admitted he was more surprised at Patrick’s finish than he was at Jimmie Johnson’s victory.
“I don’t think any of us expected what happened today,” Gibson said. “I got nervous at the end because I knew these guys were going to beat her up, but she held her own and did a good job. We achieved way more than we thought we would coming into here. She ought to be proud of herself.”
In preparing for the race, Gibson said Patrick worked on “simulator stuff” and they concentrated on preparing the car, especially the braking system.
“We went to Little Rock [the short track that resembles Martinsville and is located behind Rockingham Speedway] for a while and we worked on straight line braking, getting on the brake, getting off early to let the car roll; just finesse stuff,” Gibson said. “She’s a good road racer so that’s the kind of people that run good here. She worked really hard on her braking, taking care of her tires and her brakes. It all paid off. She did a fantastic job.
“We knew we had speed and she could do it. Our question was in traffic and people beating all over you could she get it done. She proved today she could do it. She’s not scared to get in there with them and I think she earned a lot of respect today.”
Patrick’s 12th-place finish was better than the Martinsville debut performance recorded by four of the nine drivers who have won six or more races at the short track. Jimmie Johnson finished 35th in his first Martinsville race in 2002, Stewart placed 20th in 1999, Rusty Wallace finished 15th in 1984 and Fred Lorenzen placed 24th in 1956. It also equaled Cale Yarborough’s 12th-place finish in 1963.
“It was just nice to have a good weekend after having so many that weren’t good since Daytona,” Patrick said. “I was told that if it goes well, you’ll be like, I don’t mind this place at all, let’s come back, and if it doesn’t, you don’t ever want to see it again. Today was one of those days I had a good car, and Gibson has got a good track record here, obviously (Ryan) Newman won this race last year, and he’s always run really well.
“I think the team has a lot to be proud of. The stops were good. We had a little right-front damage from early in the race so it was a little bit of a pain in the butt to get that tire off and then back on for stops.”
Patrick qualified 32nd, but had to start at the rear of the 43-car field due to an engine change in her Chevrolet on Saturday. Her crew elected to change the engine after she went from fourth to third gear while going out for practice and hit “11.4 on the revs.”
In the race, she received her Martinsville welcome from Ken Schrader on lap 16 when he spun her in turn 4 and she lost a lap. A short time later, she lost another lap, making her two laps down before a quarter of the race had been completed. However, in a race that had 12 caution flags for 85 laps, she twice found herself in position to regain the lost laps via NASCAR’s wave around rule. She regained one lap on lap 248 as a result of the fifth caution flag. Patrick returned to the lead lap as a result of the seventh caution period that ended on lap 286.
“The first one, we had about 55 laps on our tires so I was a little nervous staying out, but it worked out to our advantage,” Gibson said. “Then we ended up with fresher tires then a lot of the guys and she motored right back through them. That kept us close to the leader. Then, we did it again. The other guys who were having a lot of tire wear pitted. We only had 20 laps on our tires then.”
Patrick remained on the lead lap during the race’s later stages, but still found herself in a few more scraps. One resulted in the 11th caution period on lap 467 when Brian Vickers tagged Patrick and knocked her into Dale Earnhardt Jr., who spun his Chevrolet in the fourth turn.
She also found herself racing for the 16th position with boss Tony Stewart, and battling Vickers and Kevin Harvick on the final lap. Vickers slipped by on the inside to take 11th from Patrick, but was then spun by the 13th-place Harvick after the checkered flag.
Gibson admitted he was “a little worried about Vickers (on that final run) because he had bumped us earlier and got us into Dale Jr. He stayed out of us and did a nice job. He could have pushed the issue there and turned her around, but I think he showed some respect there and did a nice job.”
While Patrick was the first woman to compete in a Cup race at Martinsville, she wasn’t the first female to race in one of NASCAR’s top two series at the track. Patty Moise competed at Martinsville in the Busch Series [now Nationwide] 1987-90 with her best finish being 10th in her debut at the speedway. Shawna Robinson raced in the same series at the track 1993-94. Her best performance came in 1994 when she finished 29th.One Comment