Danica did what she needed to do
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick entered the 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway last year trying to protect her pole-winning car. She entered her next installment on Thursday night trying to race her way into the Daytona 500. There was anxiousness in both but a bit more freedom this time. It worked out again.
Patrick assured her entry in Sunday's Daytona 500 by finishing 14th in the first of two Daytona Duels despite a harrowing final three laps.
She needed to finish at least 15th to secure a spot.
"I think every time there is a chance something [bad] could happen, you worry it could happen," Patrick said. "But from a couple of days ago it was really the mentality, 'Let's go and race. Let's just see if we can make something happen. Let's see what happens when we try various different things.'
"That's kind of what I did out there and I kind of keep getting the same result when I try things, as in, 'When I try this, this happens. When I try that, that happens.' So that's all good information for Sunday, to be honest."
Patrick's official finish position was adjusted from 14th to 13th when the No. 4 Chevrolet of her Stewart-Haas teammate, Kevin Harvick, failed post-race inspection.
Patrick started at the back of the 24-car field because her team needed to change an engine on the No. 10 Chevrolet after the first one blew during a practice on Saturday. Working from the rear with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart, who experienced the same woes with his No. 14 Chevrolet in that session, Patrick maneuvered quickly into the mid-teens and jumped to ninth with a speedy pit stop for fuel on Lap 37 of 60.
She was ninth and working the high line with five laps remaining when cars around her began scrambling low for new drafting partners and an attempt to move forward. Dropped from the draft briefly, she was able to tuck back in line but slumped to 13th when Stewart pulled a group of cars past her.
She held on to 14th on the final lap in a surprisingly tame race, considering the amount of wrecks -- one including Patrick -- that had occurred in the Sprint Unlimited and practice so far in Speed Weeks.
"We ran right where we needed to be," crew chief Tony Gibson said. "We were further up than that with like one or two to go. Everybody started moving around, moving lines and all that, and the bottom looked like it was going to move right there so we went to the bottom and a couple of those guys peeled to the top and kind of slowed that line down. That happens.
Nobody is locked in with just a few laps left. It was nerve-wracking because there were a lot of guys fighting to get in who could have knocked us out.Tony Gibson
"Nobody is locked in with just a few laps left. It was nerve-racking because there were a lot of guys fighting to get in who could have knocked us out."
Patrick began the race in some jeopardy of missing her third attempt at the Daytona 500, with proper confluence of misfortunes, given her middling qualifying time and finish in owner points last season. Her qualifying time was 25th-best after Stewart-Haas Racing detuned its engines, at a cost of 7 to 8 percent horsepower following a power plant failure in practice.
Patrick therefore needed a top-15 finish in her qualifying race to assure a Daytona 500 spot as one of the first 32 guaranteed entry. Positions 33-36 are set by the highest remaining qualifiers who have not been gridded. Positions 37-42 were awarded in order of highest finish in 2013 owner points.
Patrick's rookie foray in the Daytona 500 was much less dramatic. After winning the pole in her second attempt at NASCAR's prestige race, she was locked in not only to the race, but to the front row. She spent the 60 laps in Duels as most in such a position, nursing her way through traffic and away from potential trouble and finished 17th. That 2013 race demonstrated the volatility of the Duels, as five cars that qualified in the top 10 finished 15th or worse.
That's what made the finish so angst-ridden, Gibson said.
"That's when the crazy stuff happens," he said of the final laps. "We went from ninth to 14th that last lap, and it could have been worse. We could have been wrecked or been 16th and sweating it out. We'll take that. Car in, in one piece. We'll put the 500 motor in it, and now we know we're in the Daytona 500 no matter what."