Danica Patrick crashes with Michael Annett and Jeb Burton in 500 practice

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Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick still has some work to do to qualify for Sunday’s Daytona 500, a task that grew at least a little more difficult when she was caught up in a wreck here Wednesday during practice.

Patrick will have to run a back-up car, from the rear of the pack in Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel races where anything but a top 15 finish would leave her in a precarious position.

“We knew we’d have to run hard in the duels no matter what and that hasn’t changed … still have to,” Patrick said while standing outside the infield medical center here.

The field for the 500 will mostly be set on Thursday. The front row of pole sitter Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are in. The top 15 finishers in each of the duels (sans Gordon and/or Johnson) will be slotted into the next 30 spots. After that, four spots go to qualifying speeds across the week (Patrick isn’t likely there), then six spots based on total owner points and one for a past champion.

Forty-three cars will race Sunday. 49 cars are entered and participating in Thursday's qualifying races.

Patrick's car was 28th in the 2014 Sprint Cup Series owner points, so she could be boxed out with a poor performance Thursday if a number of upstarts are able to jam into the top 15. She went out for Wednesday's second practice with her backup car and posted the 19th-fastest speed while making single-car runs.

The qualifying setup for the 500 is unique and with the provisional starting spots, can be a little tricky. Patrick, along with other drivers, expressed bewilderment at how it works.

“I really don’t know the circumstances,” Patrick said. “I was fairly confused in an of itself. Other than not being in top 15.”

Denny Hamlin took responsibility for the crash, which Patrick was caught up in as drivers roared around the famed speedway in a typical pack. Patrick wound up spinning through the track and into the grass infield, her car totaled.

Her backup car, her team said, was used last year by Kurt Busch and finished third here in July, so there remains some confidence. Still, for a driver in Patrick who is a major fan and sponsor draw, has had success at superspeedways and is still proving herself on the circuit, the pressure to qualify is considerable.

“I’m fine other than obviously being disappointed,” she said. “It was a good car and that’s never good thing to crash … that’s just group racing at Daytona, that’s the gamble that we all face. That’s what makes it exciting and frustrating.

“I just know I have to race hard and that’s the end of it.”

If nothing else, the prime time duels just got a bit more interesting.