Danica Patrick learned a valuable lesson in her Talladega Superspeedway debut: It’s difficult for most rookies to win friends and influence people.
Patrick led Lap 78 and ran in the top 10 for a good portion of the race. She kept her nose clean for most of the Aaron’s 312 on Saturday afternoon until she was involved in a 10-car wreck that ignited a 19-minute red-flag caution on Lap 117. Patrick is just the second woman to lead a lap at Talladega — Patty Moise led a lap here in 1995.
After repairs to her car, Patrick restarted 17th on Lap 121 for overtime. But when Sam Hornish pinched the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet into the wall coming to the checkered flag, Patrick didn’t hesitate to retaliate after crossing the finish line.
“I don’t know what happened,” Patrick said. “Sam came up after the race and apologized, so I’m not sure what was wrong with his car. But he came across the track at the front of the start-finish line.”
Hornish insisted that Joe Nemecheck nailed the back of the No. 12 Dodge, which damaged Hornish’s right front tire.
“Coming off (Turn) 4, the tire went flat,” Hornish said. "The (No.) 2 (driven by Elliott Sadler) was pushing me, which I appreciate, but at that time I didn’t need it. I was trying to get out from in front of him, but the car wouldn’t turn anymore.
“Then after the race was over, we got right-reared by (Danica’s) car. I went over and said, ‘Hey, we had the right front tire that went down, and I don’t appreciate getting turned after the race was over.’ She said, ‘Oh, I know your style,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, because I’m going to drive into trioval wall way before the start-finish line to prove any kind of point.’
"I don’t know. She’s got her head a little bit mixed up about what’s going on out there, I guess. Just one of those days."
Hornish and Patrick finished 12th and 13th, respectively. Hornish remained fourth in the point standings. Patrick moved up to 11th.
NASCAR Nationwide Series director Joe Balash did not summon either Hornish or Patrick to the hauler, saying only, “At this point, there’s nothing else to go.”
However, Patrick’s comments on the radio at the race’s conclusion summed up her Talladega experience.
“I don’t know,” she told the team. “It seems like people don’t freakin’ like me, man.”
With restrictor-plate racing, drivers need dancing partners. But Patrick’s dance card had limited suitors and several times she was shuffled back to mid-pack. JR Motorsports team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fifth, took a twirl or two with his driver. And Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was there for his buddy, as well.
During an exchange with spotter Rick Carelli in the third caution period on Lap 67, he pointed out, “I think you’re getting a push there.
Patrick replied, “Is he my friend?”
Carelli relayed that it was indeed Stenhouse Jr., and the pair used the outside lane to advance to the front. However, it was short-lived. Patrick hoped to hook up with Sadler and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps but never got the opportunity.
Patrick insists she didn’t have difficulty acclimating to the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
“No, it’s like Daytona," she said. "I just have to get my arms wrapped around more friends out there so that I can have some more people that want to work with me and we can go to the front because I got a fast car.
“I think we could have had a few more spots if the 99 (Kenny Wallace) would have dragged his brake on the back and we could have hooked up on the back straight, I think we could have gone even further forward. But it’s really hard. It’s very counterintuitive to slow down on the last lap.”
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. believes Patrick “made a couple of mistakes” but “learned a lot” over the 315-mile romp.
“We just didn’t have the outcome we wanted at the end,” Eury said. “Plate racing is always hard. You have to have someone that is willing to work with you. But every time she thought she was going to get pushed, they’d drive around her. That’s what usually happens to a rookie.
“You just have to kind of accept it and be a pusher. Cole (Whit, her JRM teammate who finished fourth) is a perfect example of that. He just went and pushed all day. At the end of the day, he had someone there that was going to take care of him and he had a shot at the win.
“You have to have respect for these guys to be able to push you. She’ll get more of that.”