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Patrick unhurt in last-lap wreck, apparently unshaken – just ticked

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There was Danica Patrick, sliding sideways at more than 150 mph in her neon green-and-black Go Daddy.com Chevrolet Thursday afternoon, headed for an inside safety barrier at Daytona International Speedway. All she could do was wait for the impact.

She was half a lap from finishing the first Gatorade 150 race, trading 10th place with other drivers, when Aric Almirola’s car slid down the track and bumped Patrick’s car and she was suddenly powerless.

It didn’t matter how many commercials she’s made or bikini photos she’s autographed. She was in her first Sprint Cup race and, while it doesn’t count as an official event, she desperately wants to prove she belongs in the sport for something other than her marketing potential.

And she was headed for the wall, through no fault of her own.

“It felt pretty big. You just kind of brace yourself and I guess be glad that I’m a small driver and that I’ve got room. Hug it in and let 'er rip,” Patrick said, her diamond earrings sparkling in the 82-degree sunshine.

When Patrick’s car slammed the wall, it took the collective breath away from the thousands spread out around the 2.5-mile track. Her car was lifted off the ground by the impact, pieces scattering in the air.

Then Patrick climbed out of the car, her frustration and disgust evident. And when she marched out of the infield medical center flanked by a pair of security officials, she led the way, walking into a collection of cameras and questions.

She wasn’t hurt and didn’t appear shaken. Just ticked.

“Overall, I’m just very disappointed that the car got crashed with two corners to go,” Patrick said, hands on her hips. “It’s not how we wanted to roll into Sunday.

“We wanted to be cool, calm and collected with no damage. Maybe that back-up car is fast. We weren’t super-excited after qualifying, so maybe this is a blessing in big disguise.”

Patrick knows everything she does on NASCAR's ultimate stage is being hyper-evaluated. That’s why she has taken a patient approach to Sprint Cup racing, serving what has so far been a two-year apprenticeship on the Nationwide Series before moving up. Even this year, she’s running just 10 Sprint Cup races, a recognition of the experience she lacks.

After walking away from the wicked collision that left her in 16th place, Patrick wanted more of what she’s chasing, not less. Learning how to drive up on cars in traffic without losing her momentum is among the challenges Patrick wrestled with Thursday.

While her car owner, Tony Stewart, was busy winning the same 150-miler, he was also watching in his rear-view mirror to find out what happened to Patrick.

“With a flourescent green car, it’s easy to pick her out,” Stewart cracked.

He saw Patrick’s car take a hard left coming out of Turn 2 and knew that meant trouble. She had worked her way as high as sixth during the short race and was spending her time learning what she could about handling her car in the pack-racing traffic. She learned a hard lesson, but preferred it happen Thursday rather than Saturday or Sunday.

Stewart said he senses Patrick wants to be more aggressive than she’s shown, in part because she wants to earn the respect of the other drivers.

Walking through the garage area after her wreck, Patrick stopped to talk with Almirola, who was heading the opposite direction. They stood in front of each other for several minutes, talking through what had or hadn’t happened. She’s not afraid to ask what she needs to know.

Patrick knows more today than she knew yesterday.

“Overall, I’m happy,” she said.

Then she walked over to her back-up car and went to work on the weekend. A crowd gathered to watch.

Green: rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com, 704-358-5118

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