Frustrated Danica off to rough start at Daytona

Danica Patrick won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 but this year is off to a rough start for the driver.

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Speedweeks isn’t going according to plan for Danica Patrick.

After the engine failed in her No. 10 Chevy during practice on Saturday, she was swept up in a nine-car wreck in the Sprint Unlimited and her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., crashed his car into hers.

It’s a far cry from starting from the pole and finishing in the top 10 in the 2013 Daytona 500.

"No, it’s not the same scenario we were in last year when we were very fast every time we went out," said Patrick, who posted the 25th fastest lap on Sunday with a speed of 194.380 mph at Daytona International Speedway. "But I’m proud of my team for building me a better car than last year. It’s just unfortunate that (we) weren’t able to run for the front row or a pole again and even more unfortunate that no matter what happens, we’re going to have to start from the back.

"It’s defeating … I’m defeated. It’s very unfortunate. It sucks to know that no matter what you do today, it doesn€’t matter. It doesn’€™t matter at all. I’m going to start from the back of the 150s — and I don’t understand why — but I’m going to start at the back for the 500 because everyone has to change their engine again. It’s a bummer, but what NASCAR says goes and I’m sure they’ll be times when it goes in my favor and other times like this one when it’s not going to be."

Crew chief Tony Gibson shares his driver’s sentiments. He could accept dropping back in the field for the Budweiser Duels at Daytona, but to have to repeat the penalty in the Daytona 500 seems severe.

"I don’t really understand," Gibson said. "I don’t know where that comes from. I’m still a little baffled about how that works. Just because I don’t understand it don’t mean that’s not the way it’s going to be, so we’ll take our lickin’ and go on.

"I’m just frustrated at how they can put you at the back of a race we haven’t even qualified for yet. In the past, it hasn’t been that way. I think the 88 had a problem last year (2012) and they put him at the back of the 150s and then gave him his spot in the 500. What it is, is what it is and whatever their decision is that’s what we have to roll with."

But Patrick asks a pertinent question: "What stops me from just going out and starting and parking? That’s a bummer for the fans, but I don’t want to tear up my 500 car."

She adopted a similar strategy last year in an effort not to destroy her pole-winning car. And after destroying last year’s 500 car in the Sprint Unlimited, Patrick’s worried about losing a second car in her Duel and potentially sacrificing a third car before next Sunday.

Once again, Gibson echoes her concerns. Given how treacherous the qualifying races can be, the veteran wonders if it’s worth risking his car. Yes, the team’s sponsor — and Patrick’s fans — would like to see her race, but as crazy as the Duels can get, particularly at the back of the field, Gibson’s a little nervous.

"Over the next four days, we’re kind of working for nothing," Gibson said. "That’s what we feel like."

Certainly, after the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team’s good fortune last year, this experience has been "humbling" for Gibson.

"We’ll work like hell to make our car good for the 500," Gibson said. "I’m not sure how hard we’ll run in the 150s because it really doesn’t pay us anything to run hard. We’ll play that by ear when the 150s come around."

Gibson said initially he "didn’t have the heart" to break the news to his driver. He waited until Stewart-Haas Racing’s competition director, Greg Zipadelli, lobbied NASCAR to overturn its decision but the effort was futile.

On the bright side, Gibson feels confident that Hendrick Motorsports has corrected the issues with the engines. The Nos. 10, 14 and 52 cars’ engines all expired during practice on Saturday. Gibson also thought Patrick "did a hell of a job" in the Sprint Unlimited before she was collected in a nine-car wreck halfway through the event and finished 16th.

"You know they’re going to wreck, but it’s disappointing when you’re actually driving away from the wreck and get hit," Gibson said. "I’m not sure what all went on there but that was disappointing to have a fast car the way things ended up there. We would have had one of the fastest cars at the end. You never know when you’re going to have a shot to win it in these races."

Both Patrick and Gibson are relieved that if the No. 10 Chevy has to start from the back of the field, it’s on a speedway where potential exists to make up ground. Patrick feels the time spent in Saturday night’s race — though limited — will serve her well next Sunday given the changes to her car.

"It was a great warm-up," Patrick said. "It was a great refresher of closing rates and learning that with this car and how the runs build and how many it takes to make a run that was all valuable information.

"The side-drafting seemed pretty powerful. When there was a good run going on the bottom early in the first run, we were all able to kind of drive up down the straightaway — side draft and bring it down in the corners and pull away from them and really use the momentum off the cars. That’s how we got moved up to the front when that line moved. So it seems like closing rates are bigger and it seems like the side draft is a little more powerful.

"I knew that in the back if someone came up on the outside and was dropping back and packed air on my left rear if I was on the outside and the last one in line, I was done. I couldn’t hang on to the draft anymore. So it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the 500. I think you’re going to see more passing. You’re going to see bigger moves happening. But you might see more accidents."