She wasn't a threat to win, and she wasn't ever a competitor to finish on the race's lead lap. But for Danica Patrick's second career race at NASCAR's highest level, finishing 31st was just what she needed.
Patrick, likely the most-covered part-timer in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history, wound up six laps behind as the checkered flag waved over the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Saturday night. Her lime green GoDaddy Chevrolet was scuffed on the side, bearing the traditional "Darlington Stripe" that most drivers finish with on the slick, tough track
"I know I had a slow start to the weekend," Patrick told her Stewart-Haas Racing crew over the in-car radio after the finish. "I wanted to be respectable and not be a moving chicane. I've got to feel like that happened and I got to the finish. In theory, I accomplished what I needed."
"You did a great job," crew chief Greg Zipadelli radioed back. "You picked up a lot of speed today during the race."
Patrick also picked up spots from her starting spot of 38th, but better yet, was around at the race's finish. It was the second-straight night of completed races for Patrick after she finished a respectable 12th in her first-ever Darlington start in Friday night's Nationwide Series race. The Sprint Cup race started on a frenetic pace with the first caution flag failing to wave until the race's 179th lap.
By comparison, the Nationwide Series race lasted just 151 laps.
Darlington, one of NASCAR's oldest and most traditional tracks, has long been known as one of its toughest. The selection of the egg-shaped oval as Patrick's second career Sprint Cup series race raised eyebrows as a place for a driver with little NASCAR experience to make an early start.
"This is a tough place and everything they said about it is true," Patrick said Friday afternoon. "This 'Lady in Black' is very intimidating. I'm just trying to get comfortable with what the car needs me to do. Where to brake, how heavy to brake and those kinds of things. "
Her post-race results left her team owner "ecstatic" after the race.
"This is a hard place to learn," said Tony Stewart, co-owner of Patrick's No. 10 team. "The first time I came here, by about the fourth time I crashed I was glad that they finally couldn't fix it. I had had enough for the night. I'm pretty proud as a car owner what she did both nights."
The early green flag run helped put Patrick out of contention early, as she was shown 31st and three laps down at the time of the first yellow. Patrick faced more problems when her crew had trouble refueling her Chevrolet and later during a caution on lap 285 when she committed a merging infraction after leaving pit road. She was forced to restart at the rear of the field.
All night, though, Zipadelli and other team members were in Patrick's ear constantly encouraging her after a strong corner or offering feedback about a racing line that didn't work. "It makes a big difference," she said to her crew after the race.
500 miles at Darlington was quite different from her last outing in NASCAR's top division in the season-opening Daytona 500. That night, Patrick was involved in a lap two crash at the track where steering and holding the gas pedal to the floor are the majority of a driver's activity. At Darlington, Patrick faced heavy tire wear, asymmetrical corners and a narrow groove often right against the outside wall.
"Here at Darlington, you're riding the wall. You're not kind of using it as a reference, you're riding the wall," Patrick said Friday. "Every driver that's out here deserves definite credit for running well and if they have a good weekend, they're darn good drivers because this is definitely tough."
Patrick, a full-time driver in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, will make her next Sprint Cup Series start in two weeks in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race will start just hours after the expected completion of the Indianapolis 500 - the race that made Patrick a household name in racing.
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