Danica Patrick delivered one of the most impressive drives by a rookie in the 64-year history of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, finishing 12th in the STP Gas Booster 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday.
It was the second-best finish of her brief 16-race Sprint Cup Series career, topped only by her eighth-place result in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Patrick’s impressive rookie performance bested those of some other name drivers in their Martinsville debuts, most notably, her team owner, as Tony Stewart finished 20th in his first Martinsville start (1999). Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished 35th in his Martinsville debut (2002). NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace finished 15th (1984). Dale Jarrett finished 14th (1984). Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th (2000). Kyle Busch finished 39th (2005). Matt Kenseth finished 21st (2000). Kurt Busch finished 37th (2000). Fred Lorenzen finished 24th (1956).
Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), qualified 32nd and became the first woman to start a Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville. But it was a rocky start as she had to drop to the rear of the field due to an engine change the team opted to make after the final practice Saturday. And just 17 laps into the race, she spun in turns three and four, which brought out a caution and put her one lap down to the leaders. Patrick then went two laps down, but she and the Go Daddy team stayed calm and rallied.
They got lap one back when a caution on lap 242 allowed Patrick to stay on track and get the wave-around, putting her in 27th for the restart, one lap down. By lap 288, Patrick had worked her way up to 22nd and once again used the wave-around. She was back on the lead lap.
From there, Patrick drove an aggressive race and moved to 12th place by the time the checkered flag flew. She didn’t back down from the bumping and banging that Martinsville is known for and earned rave reviews from fellow drivers and teams.
“The bumping and banging sure gets going,” Patrick said. “I tried to guard the inside right there at the end and then (Brian) Vickers gave me a bump, and I get it. I was trying to defend and hold my position. We still came away with a 12th-place finish. I think you take what the car gives you. Tony Gibson (crew chief) has a really good track record here. He’s a great crew chief. And my car was pretty good all day. We kind of bounced around from being a little loose to a little tight, but we got the GoDaddy Chevy back up there. We obviously went down real early with that spin and were two laps down at one point in time. So I feel like that’s almost one of the things I’m most proud of is coming back from two laps down to being on the lead lap and then grabbing a 12th place at the end.”
Patrick even surprised her crew chief Gibson, who admitted after the race he didn’t expect such a strong finish from his driver.
“I figured if we could finish top 25 and be a couple of laps down, it would be a miracle,” Gibson said. “I never dreamed this. I knew after Saturday and Friday that we had a good Go Daddy Chevrolet. I knew she was capable of doing it, as far as speed-wise and driving. To be able to go through all that beating and banging and survive and finish 12th is unbelievable.”
Gibson was also happy with the aggressiveness his driver showed late in the race – a trait that can often be challenging for rookies to learn.
“It was great to see that,” Gibson said. “I was worried about that. I knew that with 30 to go the restarts were going to get more and more aggressive, and that’s why I told her it’s not going to get any easier. I was really, really happy to see how aggressive she got. You know, being able to be on the defense. They would bump her, and she wouldn’t get flustered. I was really, really impressed with that. That was the biggest thing I was nervous about – how she would do in a situation like that. It will help her gain some confidence. Obviously, this is the worst-case scenario of where we go for a restart. To come out of her proving she can do it…on these restarts be more aggressive and do what these guys are doing and hopefully build some confidence that will help her down the road here.”
Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, finished 17th in Sunday’s race, while Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet for SHR, finished 31st after sustaining back-to-back, flat right-front tires that left him eight laps down.
Johnson won the STP Gas Booster 500 to score his 62nd career Sprint Cup victory, his second of the season and his eighth at Martinsville. Johnson is the winningest active Sprint Cup driver in Martinsville history. He trails only Richard Petty (15 wins) and Darrell Waltrip (11 wins) on the track’s all-time win list, which has played host to the Sprint Cup Series since 1949.
Clint Bowyer finished .627 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five. Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle and Mark Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 12 caution periods for 85 laps, with five drivers failing to finish the 500-lap race.
With round six of 36 complete, Stewart leads the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He maintained his 22nd-place standing and is 96 points behind new series leader Johnson. Newman fell three positions to 23rd, 97 points out of first. Patrick gained three spots to climb to 26th, 112 points behind Johnson.
Patrick, who is competing for Rookie of the Year honors against Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished 13 spots ahead of Stenhouse, who placed 25th.