There were those who doubted Danica Patrick’s ability to acclimate to Martinsville Speedway.
But Patrick proved the boys wrong Sunday with a 12th-place finish in her NASCAR debut at the track.
Patrick, who started 43rd in her Martinsville Sprint Cup debut due to an engine change, patiently worked her way through traffic. Despite dropping to two laps off the lead circuit, she moved up into the top 25 midway through the race and into the top 20 by Lap 318. Her issues with Dale Earnhardt Jr. started on Lap 354, when he developed handling difficulties and she passed him for position.
On Lap 465, Earnhardt traded paint with Patrick in Turn 2 and then, as Brian Vickers attempted to pass both drivers on the inside, Vickers nudged the No. 10 Chevy which consequently sent Earnhardt spinning in Turn 4.
As far as Earnhardt was concerned it was no harm, no foul where Patrick was concerned. On the penultimate restart, Patrick restarted 11th with 28 laps remaining. Although cars on fresh tires were able to pass her, nine laps into the run Patrick passed her Stewart-Haas Racing boss Tony Stewart for 16th position.
Kurt Busch’s fiery incident on Lap 486 stalled action and Patrick lined up 11th for the final eight-lap run. On the last lap, she tangled with Vickers once again and lost one position for a 12th-place finish.
“We had a little side-by-side action going on in (Turns) 3 and 4 at the end,” Patrick said. “I was defending and I got beat up on, and then I held it down and just kept digging on the outside.
“I guarded down into (Turn) 3 on the last lap, and then the 55 (of Vickers) hit me and got me loose and pushed me up the track, and then I held it next to him, came off the corner, and then (Kevin) Harvick is on the very inside so we were three wide coming to the line, and then for some reason the 55 just spun all the way — like big smoke going into (Turn) 1. I don’t know if that’s what you were talking about. I don’t know what happened. I have no idea.”
Harvick, who finished 13th, rectified the situation by punting 11th-place Vickers after the start/finish line.
For Patrick, however, her goal was simply learning how to race the racetrack. She acknowledged feeling “pretty comfortable from the get-go” on the half-mile, paper-clip shaped track. Throughout the weekend, she followed Stewart during practice and tracked Mark Martin during the race.
“When you have a decent car, things just are a lot easier,” Patrick said. “I’ve had a lot of other worse weekends, like Fontana, I’ve been there a bunch of times, but it was misery until the race. It was just a good car, so we were steady all weekend and we just kind of kept improving. We also improved in the race, which is always really important. We ended up getting really good power down by about halfway through the race and no matter what I did I could really get on it well coming off the corner.
“I would say that I learned pretty early, I was backing up my corner and kind of going it easy and trying to kind of save everything. I was getting really loose doing it, so once I finally got back to going in hard again and loading the front up like I was before, it seemed like the car got really balanced again. I learned that kind of easy, and that’s kind of what helped me get more comfortable in race runs.”
Patrick posted her best finish since she finished eighth in the season-opener at Daytona. She also jumped three positions in the points standings to 26th. Although she outraced her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Stewart (17th) and Ryan Newman, who suffered two flat tires before finishing 31st, Patrick was humble about the accomplishment.
“Well, I mean Ryan Newman had an issue, and he was really nice out there,” Patrick said. “There was one time he let me in when I was stuck up high, so that was really helpful of him. And I felt a little funny kind of racing really hard for position there with Tony at the end, and then to get in front of him, that was a little victory for me because he’s so good.
“I’m going to go over to his bus after this and see what he has to say about it. But no, it was really fun. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson just prepares nice cars for Martinsville. It’s not about being first on your team, it’s about being first out there overall, and you work towards that the whole time.”