Late wreck spoils solid run for Danica

FONTANA, Calif. -- Don't look at the box score. It won't tell you the truth about Danica Patrick.

Not this time. She deserved better than the stats will show for the CampingWorld.com 300 on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway.

Patrick was 10 laps away from the first top-15 finish of her brief Nationwide Series career before her No. 7 Chevy was wrecked into a mangled mess.

Patrick appeared to be holding her line in the middle of the track when she was hit from behind by James Buescher as he inexplicably turned to the left. It turned Patrick's car head-on into the wall, ending what had been an impressive day.

"I was giving him room,'' Patrick said of Buescher afterward. "Looking at the replay, it looks like maybe it was avoidable."

So close. Patrick started 14th -- her best qualifying effort yet -- and was running 14th when the accident happened. She finished a misleading 30th.

"There were a lot of positives, really," Patrick said after the race. "We had a decent car to start and were able to hold our ground and settle in.

"We made some adjustments to the car to help turn a little better because we were too tight. But we freed it up and I felt I had a really good car those last two restarts."

Patrick was racing -- really racing -- for the first time in her NASCAR experience.

She proved Saturday that she can learn and get better the second time around.

"It does make a difference coming to a place for the second time,'' Patrick said.

This was the eighth start of her first Nationwide season, but the first time she returned to a track where she raced previously this year.

Patrick finished a disappointed 31st after starting 36th on the 2-mile oval in February. That was only her second NASCAR start and her first at a non-restrictor-plate track.

That day, she was clueless. This day, she was clever and competitive.

"I was really happy that the car was good on the long runs and came on at the end," Patrick said. "I've been confused about what it takes to get better from the beginning to the end, but I think we're getting closer."

Danica Patrick There were a lot of positives, really. We had a decent car to start and were able to hold our ground and settle in.

-- Danica Patrick

Saturday would have been the first time Patrick finished on the lead lap had she made it through the final 10 laps unscathed.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. clearly was pleased with what he was seeing from Patrick during the race. Midway through, he told her: "You're doing it girl. Looks good."

Before her next-to-last restart, Eury said: "Now go get 'em."

With the IndyCar Series season completed, Patrick can concentrate on her NASCAR program now in the final five Nationwide events.

Unfortunately, she won't have the benefit she had Saturday of racing somewhere for the second time.

But there's a first time for everything, like running a NASCAR event where you prove you can drive a stock car. That's the lesson learned this time.

"We're going to have a lot of confidence going into Charlotte [next week]," Patrick said. "A lot of things went really well today."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.