Danica Patrick steadily got faster throughout the Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, but unusually long green flag runs put her three laps down early, and she finished 28th.
Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), made her second start at the 1.336-mile egg-shaped oval and was forced to use her backup car after a crash in Friday practice caused heavy damage to her primary machine.
After starting 40th, Patrick reported early that her car was experiencing a tight-handling condition as the leaders set an incredibly fast pace, while the race had only one caution in the first 303 laps.
“Those long green flag runs just killed us,” Patrick said. “It’s tough because you get behind, and it’s hard to get caught back up when the pace is that fast and there are so little yellows at the beginning. We had a setback in practice, and that cut into our practice time and because of that we didn’t get to make any qualifying runs, which led us to going out cold in qualifying, which is not a strength of mine anyway. So it was just a tough weekend. Nothing is wasted. No run or no lap is wasted, but sometimes the fruits of your labor aren’t realized until later on.”
Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, was pleased with her effort despite the finish lower than what the Go Daddy team had hoped.
“Obviously we had some issues on Friday, wrecking our primary car,” Gibson said. “So to go to qualifying with no mock (qualifying) runs and go out there raw, she did a good job. It’s tough here when you start that far back. She did a really nice job. Probably about halfway through the race, it kind of clicked, and she started running some really good lap times. She picked up on a few things following other guys, so our progress I thought went really good. The goal coming in here was to run all the laps, and if we can’t run them all, run as many as we can. Learn, then go home and digest all that and put it in our notebook and build off that, and that’s exactly what we did. It’s still a learning process for us, obviously. So to come out of here with a backup car and looking at her lap times and how she gained throughout the race – that’s good. She gave great feedback, and we made the adjustments, and it showed in the lap times. The pit stops were really, really good, and Danica did a good job. We learned a lot, and we’ll build on it for the next one.”
Patrick’s teammate Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS, finished 10th to score his fifth top-10 finish of the season and his 10th top-10 in 15 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington.
The third member of SHR, Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, finished 15th.
Matt Kenseth won the Southern 500 to score his 27th career Sprint Cup victory, his third of the season and his first at Darlington.
Denny Hamlin finished 3.155 seconds behind Kenseth in the runner-up spot, while Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 25 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 367-lap race.
With round 11 of 36 complete, Newman continues to lead the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He maintained his 17th position in the standings and has 276 points, 147 back of series leader Johnson and 39 points behind 10th-place Harvick. Stewart moved up one spot to 21st in the standings and has 253 points, 170 out of first and 62 behind Harvick. Patrick dropped one spot to 28th in the standings and has 196 points, 227 behind Johnson and 119 away from Harvick.
Fifteen races remain before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. If multiple drivers have the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Patrick, who is competing for Rookie of the Year honors against Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished 10 spots behind Stenhouse, who placed 18th.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday, May 18 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The non-point-paying event begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by SPEED beginning with its pre-race show at 7 p.m. SPEED’s “RaceDay” begins at 4 p.m.