Danica makes mark at Talladega

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Danica Patrick has led 13 laps in her short Sprint Cup career - six at Talladega on Sunday, five in the Daytona 500 last year and two at Daytona this year.

Danica Patrick burnished her restrictor-plate credentials Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. And although the final result left her unfulfilled, she at least will get to use the race car again. Many of her counterparts weren't so fortunate.

In leading six of the first 12 laps, Patrick became the first woman to pace the field around the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval in rural Alabama.

"It was good out front. I wish I could have stayed there," said Patrick, who led for the third time in her 55-race Sprint Cup career.

And in finishing 22nd, she produced the top final result by a female at Talladega, bettering the 29th-place performance of pioneer Janet Guthrie in 1978. Just three women have started a race at NASCAR's highest level at Talladega. Patrick finished 33rd in both races at Talladega last year.

Patrick began the race a season-best seventh and moved to the fore on Lap 7 with a push from Jeff Gordon in the low line. Gordon wrested the lead briefly on Lap 9, but Patrick reclaimed the front and held it until a move by Brad Keselowski -- called "mind-boggling'' by Matt Kenseth -- prompted the first caution on Lap 14.

Keselowski was third and tucked behind Patrick approaching Turn 1 when he made a bid for the lead. He appeared to be pinched down by the car of Paul Menard, then attempted to duck in front of Patrick before clearing her No. 10 Chevrolet. Patrick sent Keselowski careening off track after making contact with his left rear bumper. She restarted fourth, but overheating problems soon sent her deep into the pack attempting to find clean air for her engine.

"I was looking in my mirror," Patrick said of the incident over team radio. "I was trying to slide in between [Keselowski] and [Gordon]."

Although Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said over team radio, "We weren't clear enough to make that move," Gordon said Patrick "misjudged" Keselowski.

"Danica made a mistake early," said Gordon, who was third at the moment of the wreck. "I don't think that was an aggressive move. I think it was just a mistake that got [Keselowski] turned."

Later in the race, Keselowski, in 43rd place and six laps down, nearly sent Patrick off the track as he moved back toward the front. Laps later he lost control of his car and incited a multicar wreck. Eleven cars wrecked out of the event.

Patrick has led 13 laps in Sprint Cup, the other seven at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega's sister track and the other restrictor-plate venue in the series. She became the first to lead the Daytona 500 when she paced five laps in 2013 on her way to an eighth-place finish. She led two laps in the race this February.

Patrick seemed encouraged by the prospect of returning with a car capable of leading in the sport's most frenetic, high-speed form of competition.

"The good news is this car is going to get to go to Daytona," she said. "That is a positive. The result was not necessarily too much of a positive, but it's going to get rolled up on the truck, so that is more than a lot of people can say coming from a speedway."

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