Danica Patrick endures a heavy crash at Daytona, proving her toughness in the process

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick acknowledged it was the hardest wreck of her career, a last-lap crash in which she got spun out and slammed nose first into a Daytona International Speedway wall going nearly 200 miles an hour.

The hit was so hard all four of her wheels came off the ground. Her GoDaddy car was instantly totaled, leaving Patrick to start a backup car in Sunday's Daytona 500 near the back of the field.

None of this seemed to faze her minutes later after a brief check up at the Halifax Health Care Center on Daytona's infield.

Any doubts that the female racer, who has graced magazine covers in swimsuits and stars in racy Super Bowl commercials, was tough were answered immediately. The petite Patrick can take a hit.

So what's it like to crash head on at that speed?

"It sucks," Patrick said. "Just kind of brace yourself and be thankful that I'm a small driver and I've got room and kind of hug it in and let it rip."

The crash was undoubtedly violent. Even though Patrick pulled herself out of her car and walked to an ambulance, her family, father, mother and husband all sprinted toward the infield health center in search of news.

"That's my daughter," Patrick's dad, T.J., told a security man as he sought directions.

"Down and to the left," he was told.

It turns out there was nothing to worry about. Thursday's Duel 150s set the field for Sunday's Great American Race, where Patrick will be the most high-profile female entry and third ever. This was her first official bit of competitive driving at NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup series.

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Patrick was even willing to laugh about getting smashed up.

"It felt pretty big," she said with a smile.

Patrick was driving in a tight pack on the race's last lap, sitting around 10-15th place when Aric Almirola came down and made contact. Patrick was soon pushed out of control, sliding toward the infield wall where she slammed into a SAFER barrier – a sort of Styrofoam wall that compresses on impact.

This was a no-joke crash, and the soft wall likely saved her from injury.

"I just got hit," Patrick said. "I was just running on the bottom lane and I'm betting it was just the chain reaction it looked like. Guys get so close on their side drafting; they're touching you sometimes. So I'm sure in that situation it was hitting a side draft. It was just probably a chain reaction and I'll go look [on TV] at it and see if I can fix something or change something that I'm doing out there."

The wreck will force Patrick to start near the back of the field Sunday, which isn't that significant in a 500-mile race. Up until the final lap she was driving fine, climbing as high as sixth place in the middle of the 60-lap event.

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"I'm just very disappointed the car crashed with two turns to go," she said. "It's not how we wanted roll into Sunday. We wanted to just be cool, calm and collected with no damage.

"Maybe that backup car is fast. We weren't super excited after qualifying. Maybe this is a blessing in big disguise."

With that, she walked to a golf cart and shared a laugh with some waiting team employees as she pulled away.

Patrick has come to NASCAR's famous race well aware that a portion of these massive galleries still question her ability as a driver.

Her toughness is no longer in debate though.

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