For Danica Patrick, it was all about finishing — the race and the season.
On Saturday, Patrick qualified 14th and finished one position better in the Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Her JR Motorsports replacement, Regan Smith, won his first Nationwide Series race while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his second series title.
For Patrick, the year ended 10th in the Nationwide Series points — the best finish ever for a woman in NASCAR. She posted four Top 10 finishes with a season-high eighth in the spring at Texas and won her first career pole, at Daytona in February.
After getting her feet wet in stock cars with JRM the past three seasons, Patrick expressed her gratitude before the race began.
“Thank you guys for everything,” Patrick said. “I’ve had so much fun and I’ve learned so much. You guys have been so great to work with, I want you to know I appreciate everything. Let’s finish this off well here.”
Then it was down to business. Spotter Mark Green introduced himself over the radio before the car rolled off and crew chief Ryan Pemberton warned her that the timing line was at the end of pit road so she would know where to gain speed entering the pits.
Four laps in, Patrick advanced to 11th.
A few laps later, Green suggested, “No set place to run. Wherever you think you need to run, that’s where you need to.”
By Lap 25, Patrick settled into 15th but five laps later she lost another position and warned the crew, “It feels like (crap) out here.” Pemberton encouraged her to push it 18 more laps. But Patrick replied, “These guys are just so crazy out here.”
Patrick advised that the high line made the car tighter so Pemberton suggested adjustments for the pit stop while Green recommended she “drive it where it feels best.” At Lap 40, Patrick was 16th and entered the pits six laps later. She cycled back to her earlier position in seven laps and remained 16th when she became the last car on the lead lap after the 59th circuit.
When the first caution ignited for Ryan Truex’s accident on Lap 66, Patrick radioed her team that she was “still tight.”
“I need to be more free if you could help me on the throttle, that’s something I could use,” Patrick said.
Leader Kyle Busch led the parade onto pit road and Pemberton called for an additional chassis adjustment but opted not to take tires, putting Patrick in position to restart 10th. Before the next caution on Lap 74, Patrick had dropped to 13th and complained of “sliding all over the place.”
“If you think it’s really bad we’ll get tires,” Pemberton said and brought Patrick in for two tires plus during the yellow flag.
Before restarting 15th on Lap 81, Patrick wanted to know how her pace stacked up to the leaders. Pemberton told her during the first run she was off by five or six tenths while in the second run she had improved to two to three tenths off of the leaders. In four laps, Patrick gained three positions.
By Lap 96, Patrick was 10th when Pemberton opted to keep her on the track when the leaders pitted — and it turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
“OK, you’re making me pretty (expletive) nervous here,” Patrick said — and had every reason to be. Despite restarting from the point, Patrick slid to eighth in the first lap. Five circuits into the run, she had fell to 17th. When she dropped to 18th on Lap 106, Patrick finally broke her silence.
“It’s so much fun,” she said.
Pemberton told her to race the racetrack. She lost a spot to 20th, but as drivers began pitting, she moved back to 19th on Lap 128 but griped, “I’m so tired of these (expletive) guys. They have no clue what line they want to take.”
Five laps later, Pemberton called his driver to the pits once more.
“Half-pound of air in the right rear, half turn (up on track bar),” Pemberton said.
Patrick asked for a windshield tearoff as well. She restarted 24th and climbed to 14th by Lap 153. However, she still struggled in traffic.
“I know he has fresh tires,” Patrick said Joey Coulter approached a lap later, “but what am I supposed to do?”
As the laps wore on, Patrick’s car grew tighter in the center. She had dropped off the lead lap by the fourth caution on Lap 175, but received the free pass, which allowed the team time to work on the car. Pemberton called for four tires and Patrick restarted 14th and moved to 12th in the first lap but on the final lap, Annett passed her for position.
“He got me,” Patrick radioed. “All right guys thanks for a nice season. Sorry we didn’t have more here at the end sorry we didn’t have more all day. We got better at the end, but thanks for everything.”
Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that overall Patrick was probably “disappointed” with how her first full season in NASCAR turned out.
“She’s still really green and relatively new to the sport,” Earnhardt said. “She just needs to be patient. She’s put some really good drives together in the (Sprint) Cup car so I know she’s pretty excited about that. She ran a good race last week at Phoenix. She’s going in a good direction. She’s around some great people. She knows she’s going to be in good shape.”