NASCAR rule sends Danica to back

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Danica Patrick thinks she has a better car this year, but she hasn't had the chance to prove it yet.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick described herself as "defeated," but the inflection in her voice more connoted defiant.

Standing near a No. 10 Chevrolet she described as better than the one she used last year to become the first woman to win a Daytona 500 pole, Patrick was displeased that the course of her follow-up attempt already had largely been determined. Because of an engine failure Saturday, no matter what the outcome of Sunday's qualifying, she would start at the end of the field not only in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races but the Daytona 500 itself.

It's defeating. I'm defeated. I think it's very unfortunate. It sucks to know that no matter what you do today, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all. I'm going to start from the back of the 150s, and I don't understand why, but I'm going to have to start from the back of the 500.
Danica Patrick

"It's defeating. I'm defeated," said Patrick, who qualified 25th. "I think it's very unfortunate. It sucks to know that no matter what you do today, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all. I'm going to start from the back of the 150s, and I don't understand why, but I'm going to have to start from the back of the 500.

"It's just a bummer. What NASCAR says goes and I'm sure there will be times it's in my favor and times like this one it's not going to be. But it's a speedway and if there's time to make it up, it's on a speedway."

The course of Patrick's week -- and that of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart -- had changed inexorably on Saturday with a blown motor. Each team is allowed to change them once following the qualifying races, where finish is used to set much of the 500 starting order. But an engine change before qualifying incurred the double penalty of starting both the qualifying races and the Daytona 500 from the rear of the field.

In essence, Patrick and Stewart have no incentive to race the Duels with an improved 500 starting spot as a reward. She openly pondered -- then discounted -- civil disobedience over a rule not used at any other NASCAR race.

"What stops me from just going out and starting and parking?" she pondered aloud, for the sake of debate. "That's a bummer for the fans isn't it? But I don't want to tear up my 500 car, so what's the point of putting me at the back of the 500 when the Duels don't matter. Why would I run the Duels? I mean, I'm sure I'll run it."

The Duels are always a tricky business, even more so for drivers who have locked in a front-row spot by qualifying first or second.

Last year, crew chief Tony Gibson instructed Patrick to fade to the back of her qualifying race to protect the car that had won the pole. Though there are no places to be gained in the qualifying races this year, either, there is work to do, Gibson said.

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It was an entirely different scene for Danica Patrick last year, when she won the pole for the Daytona 500.

"You've still got to make your car good for the 500," he said. "But you don't want to wreck your best car. We brought the best one in the wind tunnel. We don't want to tear it up. There's nothing really for us to gain by trying to beat and bang and fight and tear our stuff up, but we also want to run well enough to have a decent finish."

That should be plenty to assure Patrick a spot in the Daytona 500. Only a bizarre confluence of variables could do so otherwise. The top 15 finishers from each Duel qualify for the race, with the four remaining top qualifiers not locked in taking spots 33-through-36. Positions 37-through-42 are filled with the top six cars in 2013 owner points not locked in. Patrick was 28th in owner points last season.

Patrick's qualifying effort, too, was negatively impacted by the engine failure. Gibson said the entire Hendrick Motorsports contingent and all of its teams leasing engines had "de-tuned" their engines to improve reliability at the expense of performance until the cause of the malfunctions had been determined.

Patrick's top speed was clocked at 194.380 mph. Austin Dillon won the pole at 196.019. Stewart was 35th at 193.365. Patrick, Stewart and fellow SHR teammate Kevin Harvick are seeded in Duel 1 on Thursday night.

Gibson said the de-tuned motors were likely to produce 7-8 percent less horsepower than normal, which "for a restrictor-plate motor is pretty big."

Starting from the back should not be as big, as the aerodynamic vagaries of restrictor-plate racing can allow drivers to barrel through the running order quickly with the proper choice of draft partner and racing lines. Having Stewart in close proximity to begin the race should begin the recovery process quickly.

Patrick, running last in the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night, was able to advance to third -- albeit in a smaller field of 18 cars -- after eventual winner Denny Hamlin dropped back to link up with Patrick and bear forward together as drafting partners.

Asked if she thought she could do the same in the Daytona 500, Patrick responded, "Sure I do."

"I think it was great to do the Sprint Unlimited last night," she said. "It was a great warm-up, refresher to closing rates and learning how that is with this car and how the runs build and how many it takes to make a run and things like that. It was all valuable information."

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