Danica Patrick was heading to tie her career-best NASCAR finish during Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Road America when she was spun on the final lap by Jacques Villeneuve in Turn 5 of the four-mile Wisconsin road course.
Patrick had just gotten by Max Papis for fourth and was ahead of Villeneuve as the two headed toward Turn 5. Villeneuve, a former Formula 1 champion, followed Patrick on the inside, but as he tried to move around Papis, he got into Patrick's rear bumper and turned her around.
"Look, I'm going to start off with a positive. I ran top five all day. I took the lead for a brief moment until I learned my lesson down into Turn 5 when you try to get a little bit more out of the brake zone," Patrick said. "So, that's the bummer is that we weren't able to finish that off and finish off with a top five like I feel that we all deserved. ... And it just would have been good to get a good result — people sort of say I don't get good results but today I ran well and we just can't — I feel like lately we've been running much better but we just haven't sort of finished the deal and gotten the results."
And about the incident with Villeneuve?
"I don't know, you all can make a decision for yourself about what you think happened there," Patrick said with a concluding eye roll.
Villeneuve finished fourth. Patrick was able to get out out of the gravel trap to finish 12th.
Villeneuve said that Papis pushed him into the dirt while he was under braking and when he got his left side tires back on the track he wasn't able to gain traction before he hit Patrick.
"We had nothing to do together. When I was behind Danica and Papis was on the outside, maybe he didn't know I was there, but down the straight he pushed me in the grass just where we hit he brakes," Villeneuve said. "So when I jumped in the brakes I was in the grass because of that, I wasn't right next to him so no idea. Couldn't slow down after that."
While Villeneuve did get off course — the dust cloud behind his car doesn't dispute that — it is interesting to note that while under braking after he got back on the track fully, the interval between his car and Patrick's was fairly constant until Patrick was in the corner. That's when it closed rapidly. (It's also worth noting that in eight Nationwide Series races, Villeneuve has become widely known for his propensity to make contact with others.)
During her tenure in the Izod IndyCar Series before she made the full-time move to NASCAR in 2012, Patrick wasn't known for her road racing prowess — just one of her seven podium finishes came on a road or street course. And in her first 38 NASCAR starts, her lone top five was last year at Las Vegas when she finished fourth thanks to fuel mileage.
Saturday was Patrick's second start on a road course in the Nationwide Series and after qualifying in the top 10, she was near the front all day. Her performance, and yes, her brief lead, weren't a fluke. She hung consistently with the leaders and eventual winner Nelson Piquet Jr. for most of the race, and traded fourth with Papis, a noted road course racer, multiple times over the last 10 laps.
But like at Michigan last week, where Patrick ran in the top 10 before crashing late, the results didn't match the performance. It's not pandering to say she is improving; while a win isn't immediately around the corner — that would be a stretch — it won't be much longer before her improvement is noted in the final results and she strings together some top 10s.