Danica Patrick’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series education continued Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where she finished 29th in the AdvoCare 500.
Patrick, who drives the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with Stewart-Haas Racing, never had raced at Atlanta until the Nationwide Series event Saturday night, in which she finished 13th.
So her weekend goal was to get familiar with the treacherous 1.54-mile oval and complete as many laps as possible, continuing the transition from INDYCAR to NASCAR.
She completed 321 of 327 laps while learning how drive on Atlanta’s worn pavement that causes even veteran drivers to slip and slide around due to a lack of grip. And as she has throughout her very brief Sprint Cup Series career, she got better throughout the weekend, with lap times improving right to the end of the race.
“I think we picked up overall throughout the race and we were learning about the car,” Patrick said. “I was a lot tighter than I thought I would be, but I was pretty afraid after last night at how loose I was in the Nationwide car to come tonight where I was in practice far looser in the Cup car than in the Nationwide car. I was afraid it was going to be just tank-slapping the whole time. Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, race strategist) said that we were running a pretty conservative setup, and the changes he was making were not huge changes so it didn’t step over.
“We are just in that phase of get the laps done, feel it out, run different lines, bring the car home, finish the race and try and learn a bit as we go. He said that, I don’t know if it was the whole time or some of the time, but (we were) running top-20 lap times. I think that is a good step for me. This is definitely a challenging track. I struggle most on tracks where there is low grip or they are flat. I would consider this a low grip feeling track. So we did what we meant to do.”
Zipadelli was pleased with Patrick.
“I thought she did great,” Zipadelli said. “At the end of the day, if you look at our speed and compared to where we were in practice yesterday, we picked up a lot of speed. We had to tune our race car quite a bit because we tightened it up so much yesterday in the sun (during final practice), and tonight we were pretty tight.
“It’s certainly a very hard racetrack. There’s no grip. It’s a handful for the best of them. And this year it seems like this racetrack took a big turn with grip. It’s the same tire we’ve had for a couple of years. Every year this racetrack sits in the sun for a year, and you come back and race on it and it continues to lose grip.”
Denny Hamlin won the AdvoCare 500 to score his 21st career Sprint Cup victory, his series-high fourth of the season and his first at Atlanta. It was his second consecutive trip to victory lane as he also won last week at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon finished .378 of a second behind Hamlin in the runner-up spot, while Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were six caution periods for 31 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 327-lap race, which was extended two laps beyond its scheduled distance by a green-white-checkered finish.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday, Sept. 8 in the series’ return to Richmond. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ABC beginning with its pre-race show at 7 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 GEICO 400 on Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.