Danica Patrick learns about restrictor-plate racing
by Al Muskewitz
May 03, 2013 | 31697 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Daytona gave Danica Patrick a lesson about superspeedway racing. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Daytona gave Danica Patrick a lesson about superspeedway racing. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
TALLADEGA -- Danica Patrick made history at the Daytona 500 by becoming the first woman to win a pole in Sprint Cup history.

On race day she ran in the top 10 all day and led three times.

Nothing to this superspeedway stuff, right?

When she entered the final lap in third place, it looked like she might even win the thing. Then she got shuffled back by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin and finished eighth.

Still, she was the first woman to finish in the top 10 at the Daytona 500, but didn’t get the most desired result. Welcome to the world of restrictor-plate racing.

She blamed inexperience on her finish. “I didn’t know what to do exactly,” she said at the time.

Patrick could get another chance down the stretch in the Aaron's 499 on Sunday, her first restrictor-plate race since Daytona. If she does, she expects to have a plan.

“I learned that if I just stay in line and keep my foot down and don't try to come up with any kind of plan that you are kind of a sitting duck,” she said Friday outside her hauler at Talladega Superspeedway. “I talked to Tony (Stewart) after the race and Jimmie (Johnson, the race winner), too. I think Tony pointed it out most specifically that there was probably more to lose in third than there was to gain. By pulling out and trying something I could have just as easily ended up 15th or so back.

“You just have to hope and pray you're in the right place at the right time. You have to be smart enough to know when you're putting yourself in a bad situation and when you need to force the issue. ... I have a better idea of what it is going to take.”

The top 10 finish at Daytona may have spiked her confidence and the expectations going into Sunday's race, but it's more about being comfortable on the biggest of the Sprint Cup tracks. She will get more seat time around the 2.66-mile tri-oval today in running the Aaron's 312 Nationwide Series race for the second year in a row, although rain is expected to postpone the event. She finished 13th in it last year.

She’ll go into the big race with the same car she took to Daytona.

“I don't know if the confidence level shifts a tremendous amount as much as the comfort level does,” she said. “Just being on these big speedways and comfortable with this pack-style racing that I was so used to in IndyCar on the ovals.

“Just having a feel for it is something that I probably caught on to quicker than anything in stock car racing. I guess I show up here and it's just a little bit more comfortable.”

If running strong at Daytona did anything, it may have earned her a few more options from people wanting to go with her in the late stages of a race. They were options she didn't have in Florida in February.

“Any time you run at the front and you run with good drivers you hope that they just have good experience and they think nice things and feel more comfortable around me,” she said. “They think less about me probably to be honest as far as just thinking about it other than worrying about me being fast. I mean, that is the best kind of thinking you can have.”

It hasn’t been that good a year for Patrick. Outside of her Top 10 at Daytona and a 12th at Martinsville, she hasn't finished any higher than 25th in any race this season. She is currently 26th in points, 102 points out of the Chase.

“We have a lot of tests lined up for the next month,” Patrick said. “It's just a matter of stumbling on to the right balance of setups so you can go to these mile-and-a-halves and unload close and then make it better instead of -- at least in my situation -- not sure exactly what platform you should be running and what setup you should be running.”

Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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