Danica Patrick achieved just what she wanted to do in the Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Patrick, the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), wanted to run a clean race and finish the 200-lap event. She did that, earning a 26th-place finish.
While Patrick and the Go Daddy team hoped for a higher finish, it was an improvement from the beginning of the weekend, a goal for the team as Patrick continues her Sprint Cup education.
Patrick started the race – her first Sprint Cup start at the 2-mile oval – in 40th place with an ill-handling racecar. She nearly lost a lap to the leaders early thanks to the rapid pace of the race, but a timely caution at lap 28 kept Patrick on the lead lap and gave the team the opportunity to work on the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet.
The team made track bar, wedge and air pressure adjustments to help improve the balance of Patrick’s car, which she described as being loose entering the corners, tight in the center and loose exiting the turns. Once back under green, Patrick reported that the adjustments aided her car’s handling.
Patrick continued to give valuable feedback to the crew on her car’s performance. With each opportunity, crew chief Tony Gibson made adjustments, which helped the GoDaddy.com machine come to life. She also tried various lines on the multi-grooved racetrack to learn where the car was fastest. As the race wore on, Patrick’s car continued to improve.
Thanks to the various pit stops to work on the car, Patrick ended up on a different pit sequence than most of the leaders. A green flag pit stop at lap 77 saw her lose a lap to the leaders. But Patrick refused to give up and fought to keep her car in the mix. When the caution flag waved at lap 131, Patrick did not pit and was able to take the wave-around and get back on the lead lap.
But she again was pitting off-sequence and again lost a lap during a green flag pit stop at lap 161. Despite being a lap down, Patrick stayed in the battle to get back on the lead lap, but she never could claim the “Lucky Dog” spot.
By the end of the race, Patrick’s car had improved enough to turn lap times comparable to drivers in the top-15. While Patrick wanted to finish better than 26th and one lap down, she was pleased with the improvements the team made to her car throughout the race.
“We just had a tough Friday and Saturday, and we regrouped for Sunday and put a new setup on the Go Daddy Chevrolet and stayed optimistic,” Patrick said. “The car started off a little bit loose, but once we dialed that in, it was decent. At the end of the race, I really thought it was pretty good. So I felt better at the end of the race than I did in qualifying. We made big improvements. We all want better than 26th and that’s what we had today, and it will be better next time.”
Patrick’s performance at a difficult track made Gibson proud.
“We’re pleased,” Gibson said. “We’re making small gains and finishing races, and that’s what we’ve got to do. We struggled Friday and Saturday. We kind of leaned on the 14 (Tony Stewart) guys on part of their setup there, and made our car definitely better there. We got better as the race went on. Our adjustments were working. We fought for that ‘Lucky Dog,’ and we actually thought we had it there one time, but we just couldn’t get in the right line and get moving. We put ourselves in position to have a good day, and we had a good day. Really appreciate everyone at Go Daddy for their support.”
Patrick’s SHR teammate, Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet SS, finished 10th to score his third top-10 finish of the season and his eighth top-10 in 19 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers /Mobil 1 Chevrolet for SHR, led twice for 18 laps and was in position for a top-five finish with 10 laps to go until a block by Joey Logano on the lap 190 restart forced Stewart low and impeded his momentum. Stewart lost valuable positions in the closing laps and finished a disappointing 22nd.
Kyle Busch won the Auto Club 400 to score his 25th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his second at Fontana.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished behind Busch in the runner-up spot as the race ended under caution for a last-lap crash involving Logano and Denny Hamlin. Logano, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five, while Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne and Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were nine caution periods for 35 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 200-lap race.
With round five of 36 complete, Newman leads the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He gained three spots to climb to 20th, 78 points behind new series leader Earnhardt. Stewart picked up two positions to rise to 22nd, 91 points out of first. Patrick dropped one spot to fall to 29th, 112 points behind Earnhardt.
Patrick, who is competing for Rookie of the Year honors against Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished six spots behind Stenhouse, who placed 20th.
The Sprint Cup Series takes a rare weekend off for Easter before returning to action April 7 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for the STP Gas Booster 500. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 12:30 p.m.