April 09, 2013  |   By Bruce Martin

Danica Makes Big Strides With Strong Martinsville Run

When a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver starts 32nd and finishes 12th at Martinsville Speedway, it’s a pretty good advancement. But for the most part, it will be overlooked, especially when the winner of the race is “Mr. Martinsville,” Jimmie Johnson.

But when that driver who improved 20 positions from the green flag to the checkered flag is Danica Patrick, it becomes noteworthy.

Patrick actually started last in the 43-car field because of an engine change, which makes her run all the way to 12th place even more impressive.

It wasn’t Patrick’s best finish of the season, but it probably was her most impressive. She started on the pole and ran in the top three for most of the Daytona 500 in February before she was shuffled back to eighth place on the final lap in another race won by Johnson.

Last Sunday at the .526-mile, flat, paper-clip short track, Patrick competed in a Cup car at Martinsville for the first time and delivered a great performance on what is known as a “driver’s track.”

At Daytona, it’s all about the car and the draft. But at the shortest of the short tracks in NASCAR, it’s about bumping and banging, routing and gouging through the field. That’s exactly what Patrick did in the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.

“Well, never being at Martinsville before, I didn’t know what to expect,” Patrick said. “All I knew was that it was going to be a little bit crazy. The bumping and banging sure gets going. 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. It was good to do that for GoDaddy, and obviously the Hendrick engine was very strong. I felt like I made a lot of passes. I feel like I just passed all day. But I’m sure a lot of people do that on a short track. It was a nice day for us. It was nice to have a good weekend. We’ve had quite a few bad ones since Daytona. So we’ll take this and get rolling into the summer because we don’t have a break until July.”

Patrick, a former IZOD IndyCar Series driver who became the first female driver to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 in her rookie year in 2005, is also the highest-finishing female driver in Indy 500 history when she was third in 2009. She moved full time to NASCAR competition in 2012 for a complete Nationwide Series schedule before climbing to the elite Sprint Cup Series this year. Her performance at Martinsville was a sign of progress heading into the NRA 500 this Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

“It’s big,” crew chief Tony Gibson said. “We ran really good with her last year toward the end, and that was our first race with her. We had some confidence out of there and into Phoenix. So it’s awesome to come out of Martinsville with some confidence and a little momentum going into Texas. And we’re coming up on some tracks where I think we can run really good at. It’s huge right now for us.

“I figured if we could finish top-25 and be a couple of laps down, it would be a miracle. I never dreamed this. I knew after Saturday and Friday that we had a good car. I knew she was capable of doing it, as far as speed and driving. To be able to go through all that beating and banging and survive and finish 12th, she did a great job.”

The team tested at “Little Rock” – a short oval located at North Carolina Speedway outside the main oval in Rockingham, N.C. – before heading to Martinsville last week.

“Going to Little Rock was obviously huge,” Gibson said. “Going there and just kind of getting in that mode of braking and working on a couple of things setup-wise to help her. Martinsville is one of those places where, if you can road race, you’re going to get around there pretty good. Obviously, she’s a pretty good road racer, so having that straight-line braking mentality and finesse of not just overdriving the car, that helped her most going into there. She definitely did a really, really nice job all day. She got aggressive when she needed to at the end.”

Now it’s off to Texas Motor Speedway, the fast 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, Texas, which is the track where Patrick has her most experience with 13 starts, including one in Sprint Cup, four Nationwide and eight IZOD IndyCar Series races. Last November, Patrick started 32nd and finished 24th in her first Sprint Cup race with Gibson calling the strategy. She has finished in the top 15 in three of her four Nationwide Series starts at Texas.

In the IZOD IndyCar Series, Patrick had eight starts with five top-10 finishes, including third place in June 2007 and second place in June 2010.

“I think, more than anything with Texas, it’s the fact it’s a really high-banked, fast track, and those are the kind of tracks I’ve liked the most,” Patrick said. “I feel that load in the corner, and you’re able to carry so much speed through there because of that banking. I feel like it translates more to a feeling I was familiar with from Indy cars. So I like going to Texas.”

Patrick has also been a focal point of TMS President and General Manager Eddie Gossage’s promotional campaigns throughout the years.

“The Dan Wheldon/Danica Patrick boxing duo promotion coming off of (the) Milwaukee (IndyCar race in 2007) -- that was probably my favorite,” Patrick said. “I also just about won in 2009. It was (Ryan) Briscoe and I on the last stop. I came out in front of him, but I just didn’t have the speed, and he went around me. But I almost won that race. That was a good night.”

Last Sunday was also a good day for Patrick, who finished higher than some NASCAR Cup legends did in their Martinsville debut.

Indiana native Tony Stewart, her team owner and fellow driver,, finished 20th in his first Martinsville start in 1999. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished 35th in his Martinsville debut in 2002. NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace finished 15th and Dale Jarrett finished 14th, both in 1984. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th in 2000. Kyle Busch finished 39th in 2005. Matt Kenseth finished 21st and Kurt Busch finished 37th, also in 2000. Fred Lorenzen finished 24th 1956.

Patrick earned her finishing position at Martinsville and even got aggressive toward the end of the race.

“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 and shaken up. 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, that was the worst-case scenario of where we go for a restart. To come out of there proving she can do it – being more aggressive on the restarts and doing what these guys are doing – will hopefully build some confidence that will help her down the road.”

After the race, second-place finisher Clint Bowyer asked Patrick, “You beat up on the guys?”

“Well, I was defending and I got beat up on, and then I held it down and just kept digging on the outside,” Patrick told Bowyer.

“I got behind Danica, and I couldn't pass her,” Bowyer said. “She came a long way from yesterday. She was extremely fast. Good job.”

Patrick overcame a spin early in the race and was able to keep digging.

“I kind of got pinched down, but I also got in pretty hard,” Patrick said. “When you've got the momentum going that way, it was sort of a perfect storm. But I learned my lesson to make sure that you just don't go in too hard because they're going to be holding you tight, and there's going to be nowhere to go, nowhere to slide up, and you get into them and it's a lot    if you've got wheel in it you're probably going to come around.

“We were two laps down at one point, so I'm probably most proud of getting those two laps back and then running strong until the end there on the lead lap.”

Patrick and Brian Vickers were involved in some late race beating and banging, but she held her ground.

“She pissed off two or three guys, I think,” Bowyer said.

“I probably did,” she said. “I guarded down into (Turn) 3 on the last lap, and then the 55 (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 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.

“We were lined up on the inside of (Turns) 1 and 2, and Vickers hit me and hit me into Dale (Earnhardt Jr.), and Dale got sideways and then went down the back straight and Dale was trying to put me down in the wall on the inside, and we got into (Turn) 3 and he went around sideways and spun. I wasn't trying to lose any friends out there, that's for sure. It was tight, like it is, bumper to bumper, and I just got hit from behind. Yeah, 55 found my bumper again at the end. You know, it's Martinsville, right? Three-wide, coming to the start-finish line, it's all exciting.”