Danica Patrick put herself in position for a safe, solid and respectable finish for 59 and a half of the 60 laps of her NASCAR Sprint Cup debut during Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.
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Instead, she was riding in an ambulance for a precautionary medical checkup while her teammate Tony Stewart cruised to the checkered flag. Patrick’s bright green No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevy suffered major damage after a frightening crash into the track’s inside retaining wall — the innocent victim of last-lap four-wide racing.
Patrick was running at the bottom of the race track near the rear of the lead pack of cars when Aric Almirola’s Ford suddenly veered left, hitting Patrick’s Chevy and sending it careening into the wall.
She said it was one of the hardest hits she’s sustained in either her seven-year IndyCar career or her brief initial foray in NASCAR.
“It sucks,’’ Patrick said bluntly after emerging unhurt after a check-up in the speedway’s infield care center. “But you just kinda brace yourself and in these situations I’m glad I’m a small driver and had room (to brace).’’
“It felt pretty big. I just got hit. We were just running on the bottom lane and I’m betting it was a chain reaction. It’s so close on the side drafting they’re touching you sometimes. In that case maybe it was a hitting side draft.
“I’ll go look at it and see if I change something I’m doing out there. Overall I’m just very disappointed we got crashed with two corners to go. That’s not how we wanted to roll into Sunday. We wanted to be just cool, calm and collected with no damage.’’
Her official finish was 16th, the first car one lap down. And her backup Chevrolet was already being rolled out as Patrick and her parents left the care center on a golf cart.
"Maybe that backup car’s fast," she said. Maybe, she joked, the accident will turn out to be a ”blessing in a big disguise.”
But Patrick’s race strategist, Greg Zipadelli, was in no mood for jokes as his team tended to Patrick’s wrecked car.
”Her biggest thing was she wanted to go out there and ride with a bunch of guys and be in there and earn the respect of them — she can do this, she’s not all over the place,” Zipadelli said. ”I mean, I never saw her car move. I saw a lot of grown men couldn’t keep their car under control. So maybe they need to work on that.”
In what probably felt like her first day of school, Patrick spent the majority of the race doing exactly what she planned to do — turn laps, gain experience and stay out of trouble. She ran among the top 10 for a good portion of the race, even as high as sixth at one point.
Patrick mostly kept to herself during the race, tucking into the draft and not trying any of the aggressive maneuvers that ultimately ended her day early.
Her team owner and teammate, Stewart, didn’t see the accident but watched a replay after the race.
“It was impressive how she kept picking her way up through the field,’’ Stewart said. “The little part I could see her, I thought she did a good job. It’s hard for her right now because she’s trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her.
“It shows her poise and how she’s trying to make the right decisions to gain other drivers’ confidence right now.’’
Having to switch to a backup car means Patrick will start her first Daytona 500 from the rear of the field, but she emerged from Thursday’s tough knocks as optimistic about Sunday’s NASCAR primetime debut as ever.
“Overall, I’m happy, and forgetting the last two corners I’m glad I finished all those laps and got that experience,’’ Patrick said.