Danica's 18th her best of year

In an eventful weekend, Danica Patrick crashed in practice, qualified 36th, then finished 18th at Bristol. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Danica Patrick had a clear path up the banking of Turn 3 and through the open crossover gate to the motor coach lot at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday. It was raining an icy rain and after 500 laps and nearly five hours of weather delays, she was due an exit.

But spying Clint Bowyer's crewmen leaning on his No. 15 Toyota in the post-race inspection line, she made a direct path to begin explaining herself to crew chief Brian Pattie. With less than 50 laps left in the Food City 500, in which Patrick had started 36th and finished 18th, she had inexplicably rammed into the back of Bowyer's car attempting to depart pit road. It was a baffling mistake, so it seemed, but the result of a transmission problem that left her with only fourth gear by the end of the race.

"I only had fourth gear, so that's why I hit Clint in the pits," she said, almost mortified. "I hit Clint in the pits. It wouldn't go. I dipped the clutch and it got sideways, and when it caught it went straight and it wouldn't stop."

Pattie and the crewmen nodded, and grinned, accepting the explanation. And she was off.

It finally was the end to an eventful night, a frustrating path to another encouraging result -- Patrick's best this season after finishing 21st last week at Las Vegas. She began the season 40th in the Daytona 500 and 36th at Phoenix.

The weekend began with a crash four laps into the first practice session that forced her to a backup No. 10 Chevrolet on Friday.

"We had a really rough Friday and Saturday, going to a backup after like my fourth lap on track, not a very good practice, not a very good qualifying," she said. "We're kind of shaking our heads going, 'What the hell are we going to do?' And [crew chief Tony Gibson] made good decisions on the car. We stuck with what we had, tried to make improvements on that and got a bunch of cars in the beginning. And then after that it was like a chain of problems."

Running inside the top 20 and on the lead lap on Lap 155, Patrick was impacted by lapped rookie Cole Whitt when he turned into the wall directly in front of her. She required multiple pit stops to repair the handling of the car and the attitude of the splitter after the incident, falling a lap down, where she remained for the rest of the race.

"It was a lot to overcome," Gibson said. "Nobody quit. Nobody gave up. It just shows you that when it can't get any worse, it usually does, but if you stay strong and keep your head up you can turn it around, and that's what we did today.

"To be only one lap down and finish 18th from where we started, I'll take that, from wrecking the car and qualifying in the back and having damage early and losing the transmission."

Patrick began losing gears soon after, though, having only fourth for the final 100 laps. Gibson said the pit road incident, though strange, was unavoidable.

"It can happen," Gibson said. "You see it happen. Not quite like that, but you do see guys running into each other on pit road. But I don't think there was anything she could have done any different. I think it just surprised her as much as it surprised the [No.] 15 boys. If she had a regular first gear, I don't think it would have happened. But she did a good job of keeping her head and not freaking out about it."

Patrick said the transmission was threatening not to make the duration of the scheduled 500 laps because of numerous late cautions.

"Under that last yellow I pushed the clutch in and there was not much right there," she said. "Thank goodness we didn't have to restart or pit. It would have been a shame to go all that way and lose the clutch on the last lap.

"I have days where not a single thing goes wrong but I finish 30th, so on a night like tonight where about everything went wrong, I'll take it."