Danica Patrick’s continued her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series education with a career-best 25th-place finish in the GEICO 400 on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
Patrick, who drives the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with Stewart-Haas Racing, was making just her sixth Sprint Cup Series start and her first at the 1.5-mile oval.
“I think we made a lot of progress in the race,” said Patrick, who grew up in nearby Roscoe, Ill. “I think Zip (Greg Zipadelli, race strategist) did a good job of changing the car and making good changes each time. We got a little bit loose toward the end, and I feel like we lost a little bit of ground in that run. But then in the last run, I felt like we got a little bit of that back, and, if anything, we were a little tight. So be careful what you ask for, I guess. Ultimately I think it was generally a big improvement on overall lap time throughout a run, and that is the kind of stuff we need to be doing.”
Patrick started 41st but ran a smooth, clean race as she steadily rose through the field. Her spotter, Tab Boyd, worked with her to find different lines on the racetrack to provide more speed, while Zipadelli massaged the car’s handling through a series of chassis and tire pressure adjustments. Both efforts produced progress throughout the day.
Near the end of the race, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Patrick were the only drivers one lap down in the field. In the closing laps, Patrick was catching both of them with a chance to gain one or two more positions. Unfortunately, time ran out, and the checkered flag flew before she was able to work her way past the veteran drivers.
While every track where Patrick races is important to her development, intermediate tracks (1.5 and 2 miles in length) like Chicagoland are critical as they comprise 14 of the 36 races on the Sprint Cup Series schedule as Patrick prepares for a full-time schedule in 2013.
Brad Keselowski won the GEICO 400 to score his eighth career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his first at Chicagoland.
Jimmie Johnson, who led four times for a race high 172 laps, finished 3.171 seconds behind Keselowski in the runner-up spot. Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five. Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 23 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the second race of the 10-race Chase – is the Sylvania 300 on Sept. 23 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.
Patrick, who is running only a 10-race Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2012, will next drive in NASCAR’s top division in the AAA 400 on Sept. 30 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.