Danica Patrick 19th in Homestead finale

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It started with a bang, went through a long whimper and ended with some hope.

Danica Patrick's first-year foray into stock-car racing concluded with a career-best 19th-place finish in the Ford 300 on Saturday night.

It was her first NASCAR top-20 and the first time she finished a Nationwide race on the lead lap. But she was an angry lady when it ended.

"Why am I so upset? Because I worked my a-- off to get by that [09] car [Brian Scott] and couldn't get by," she said in TV interview. "I'm so mad.

"I have to find little victories in everything. I was faster than him and couldn't get by. There were a lot of positives tonight, but the competitiveness in me wants more. It's not that big a deal, finishing 18th or 19th. It won't change the world."

Patrick has yet to change NASCAR's world as she knows it.

"This has been an up-and-down year, a character-building year and a humbling year,'' Patrick said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "But I did know coming in it was going to be the hardest year I've ever had.

"Still, nothing can prepare you for it. But I've learned a lot, learning to see the good in a bad weekend."

Patrick competed in 13 Nationwide events for JR Motorsports (pretty good equipment by almost anyone's estimation). One top-20 is nothing to brag about for something that started so well.

She got everyone's attention at Daytona in February with her first stock-car race when she finished sixth in the ARCA event.

It was quite a moment, including a crowd of fans trying to get near her after the race and a horde of reporters in the garage waiting to hear how she did it. Only a Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory could command a bigger buzz at Daytona than Danica's opening salvo.

But ARCA is not Nationwide (it's like comparing high school baseball to Triple-A). It raised expectations to a level that were unfair and impossible to achieve.

And competing in two separate racing disciplines at the same time is no way to make it work. Racing full time in IndyCar and part time in Nationwide brought down her performance in both leagues.

Patrick finished 10th this season in the IndyCar standings, her worst showing since her rookie year in 2005 when she was 12th.

The 2011 season will be more of the same schedule-wise -- all the IndyCar events and a selected number of Nationwide races.

That won't work. Patrick is 28, and at some point soon, it must be all-in or all-out for NASCAR.

Every time I write about Patrick's NASCAR efforts, a few angry readers will respond with e-mails that say: "Why don't you write about 19th-place finishers in other races?"

Here's why:

• Other 19th-place finishers haven't almost won the Indy 500, led that event and finished in the top 10 five times at the Brickyard.

• Other 19th-place finishers aren't the first woman to win a major open-wheel event.

• Other 19th-place finishers aren't an international celebrity known worldwide by their first name.

Get it?

Oh, and in the name of fairness, Jennifer Jo Cobb's 17th-place finish in the Ford 200 Camping World Truck Series race Friday night was the best finish for a woman this year for any NASCAR touring series.

However, all the things mentioned above do not apply to Cobb. If she continues to make other special moments, she will receive more attention.

Cobb has some racing skills, as does Patrick. She's a talented driver, but if Danica hopes to be more than a big name making laps, she has to give it all she's got in one discipline.

IndyCar is on the rise. After more than decade of destruction from a bitter open-wheel feud, things finally are headed in the right direction. Chevrolet is returning to the series and Lotus is coming to the party in 2012, when IndyCar goes to a new car.

Patrick is pleased with IndyCar's recent moves forward, but she gave some hints Friday about why she may lean toward NASCAR as the place to finish her career.

She doesn't like the fact that IndyCar is deemphasizing ovals and returning to more road and street races.

"I have to take everything into consideration,'' Patrick said. "We've lost some great [oval] tracks in recent years -- Fontana, Phoenix, Michigan, Chicagoland. They're going with a lot more road courses and I'm not as strong on them.

"I think for fans, there's not a lot of passing [on road courses]. It's about strategy and when you pit."

Clearly, Patrick is no road-racing fan, a venue where she struggles. She wants to race ovals.

"I have to think about those things," she said. "I want to go where I can run the best and have the most fun. I just wanted to get racing again and found the racing here is really fun."

Patrick had her "have at it" moments this year. She got bumped, got wrecked and bumped back. But she didn't get in anyone's face, something she's known for doing in IndyCar.

"That gets me in trouble," Patrick said. "I've learned it's much better take it to the track than say something."

But she's learning what it means to trade paint.

"It's new for me to be hitting people,'' Patrick said of the on-track bumping. "I want to earn respect, give people room and run fair. But you can't let them push you around. I don't what to be a jerk out there, but I will hit people back. I'm not afraid to do it.''

Patrick took her lumps in Season 1 as a NASCAR driver, but she walks away feeling good about where she's headed.

"Ultimately, it went pretty well," she said. "I'm looking forward to going back to the track next year and racing further up the grid."

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.