MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- As far as race-day omens go, there are few worse than being the cause of the race's first caution. Yet that was Danica Patrick's fate Sunday after starting dead last, then looping her No. 10 Chevrolet just 15 laps in after contact with Ken Schrader.
Seconds later, Schrader's radio crackled: "That'll learn her." But her long day of learning was just beginning.
Patrick took all the lessons to heart and rallied from two laps down for an improbable finish at a near-impossible track, turning her Martinsville Speedway debut into a convincing 12th-place run in Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500 that was tied for 30th-best among first-timers at the track since 1972. It also reversed a trend of four straight finishes outside of the top 25 since her historic eighth-place effort in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"You know, it was just nice to have a good weekend after having so many that weren't good since Daytona," Patrick said. "Yeah, it was a fun little track. 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."
So much for omens. By day's end, she was carrying the banner for Stewart-Haas Racing, outdistancing teammate Ryan Newman, last year's race winner who came home 31st, and her boss, three-time Martinsville winner Tony Stewart, who was 17th.
It was quite the turnabout for Patrick, who failed to dazzle during practice or qualifying Friday and Saturday. Worse, she traded her 32nd-place starting position for the absolute rear of the field after she over-revved her engine in practice, prompting crew chief Tony Gibson and her SHR team to change powerplants before Sunday's race.
Starting last and falling down two laps early seemed to be the recipe for disaster for Patrick at NASCAR's shortest track, which has a reputation for humbling rookie drivers. But things were already starting to click, even if it didn't appear that way on the scoreboard.
"Honestly I felt pretty comfortable from the get-go," Patrick said. "When you have a decent car, things just are a lot easier. I've had a lot of other worse weekends, like Fontana, I've been there a bunch of times, but it was misery until the race. It was just a good car, so we were steady all weekend and we just kind of kept improving. We also improved in the race, which is always really important. We ended up getting really good power down by about halfway through the race and no matter what I did, I could really get on it well coming off the corner."
Just as instrumental in the team's major comeback was the savvy of Gibson, who helped Patrick keep her composure for the balance of the race despite the quick spin. He also twice made the right call with the wave-around rule to get his driver back on the lead lap, where she stayed until the finish.
"She was really down on herself (early)," Gibson said. "She got bumped and got spun ? but I told her there was a long way to go and there would be plenty of opportunities to get those laps back. Just have to be patient and be smooth and she did it. She kept her head all day; only got fired up a couple of times, and I had to rein her back in and keep her calm."
Once on the lead lap, she was on the march. Patrick was in the middle of a three-wide sandwich with Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 26th in his Martinsville debut in 2000, with 35 laps remaining, but kept her car pointed in the right direction. She even picked off Stewart in the final 50 laps on her way toward the fringes of the top 10, which only underscored how her familiarity with the tricky .526-mile layout grew as the day progressed.
"I feel like finding the limit on a short track where you're going a little slower is a little bit ? there's a little less penalty there, a little less risk than finding the limit on a really big track where you're doing 200 miles an hour and you get sideways and you don't always catch those," Patrick said. "I guess that's probably the comfort level for me. I felt like it was kind of traditional passing here, setting it up and getting your nose in there, a little bit more road-course style, so that might have some effect because I've done so much of that. But good car, steady day."
After watching his driver defy rookie expectations, Gibson agreed, only more emphatically.
"She did a fantastic job," Gibson said. "We achieved way more than we thought we would do coming into here. ? She should be proud of herself."
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