Like many before it, Danica Patrick's final NASCAR race ends in disappointment

Danica Patrick was disappointed in her early exit from Sunday's Daytona 500, but said she was pleased to be competitive. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The end came sooner than expected, sooner than she and her faithful following of fans had hoped.

Danica Patrick's final ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was in a golf cart -- to and from the infield care center at Daytona International Speedway.

The towering scoreboard provided slight content if not context -- Patrick finished 35th in the field of 40. That she'd run as high as 13th in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 while avoiding early incidents was left unsaid.

"Tony Eury Jr., my crew chief, did an awesome job," Patrick, uninjured, told reporters soon after departing the care center. "The whole team did a really good job."

The first half of her Danica Double, which will conclude with a return to compete in the Indianapolis 500 later this year, came together quickly, she noted, adding "that's a tall order to get a car ready for a superspeedway that's competitive."

"But it was [competitive]," she stressed. "But it just wasn't meant to be today."

Proof of that sat inside the garage, her garish green Go Daddy-sponsored No. 7 Chevrolet parked perhaps 300 yards away. It looked every bit like a car that had just been swept up in a multicar collision at nearly 200 mph. It was bent and spent.

Crewmen surrounded the vehicle while fans milled about nearby, hoping for a glimpse of Patrick or perhaps a piece of sheet metal history to take home.

Eury, stepping away from the cutting and sawing, said the team's goal had been to finish the race. "A solid top-10," he said, "would be great.

"A win, that would be a story," he said, grinning.

"The whole deal coming down here was we were going to have fun, we were going to try to run the best we can. [Danica] had a lot of confidence I would bring her a good Daytona car."

Eury and the team did just that. Patrick had a carefree week prior to Sunday, competitively speaking. She posted the 28th-fastest speed overall seven days earlier in time trials, finished 14th in her qualifying race on Thursday and her practice times on Friday and Saturday were steady if not spectacular.

Speed is relative at Daytona, where restrictor plates rob engines of horsepower and rob drivers of the ability to pull away from each other. Here, the slowest can be fastest under the right circumstances and with the right drafting partners.

The week wasn't without fanfare. New beau and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers surfaced on Thursday prior to Patrick's qualifying race and was on hand here Sunday as well, spending time on the team's pit box while Danica put in the final laps of her NASCAR career.

Earlier, in the Sunday morning drivers' meeting, officials noted Patrick's final start and Steve O'Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR, thanked her publicly for her contributions to the sport. Drivers and officials gave her a rousing round of applause. Fans did likewise when she took the stage during driver introductions.

The end came hours later, playing itself out just past the halfway point of the 200-lap race as the field headed into Turn 3. Patrick, running midpack, found herself with nowhere to go when others in front slid this way and that, bounced off walls and off one another.

Her car was one of seven involved.

"You just don't expect the guys up front to be wrecking," Eury said. "That's the whole deal."

Exiting the care center afterward, Patrick seemed disappointed but determined. That, perhaps more than anything else, has summed up her stock car racing career. Some things never change.

It was determination that helped her make the transition from open-wheel racing, where she had become the first woman to win an IndyCar race, to the heavier, harder-to-handle stock cars of NASCAR.

There were two years of combination competition (2010-11) as she ran both open-wheel and NASCAR's Xfinity Series. By '12, she had begun her foray into Cup.

In 2013 she had won her first Cup pole, gained a huge fan following and brought interest to the sport from a sector not previously heard from in large numbers.

Youngsters, particularly but not exclusively female, seemed taken by the smallish but fiercely competitive Patrick. That didn't change when Go Daddy, sponsor of her No. 10 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing for four of her five years in the series, stepped aside at the end of 2016.

Competitively, Patrick established records for female drivers in NASCAR -- she's the lone female pole winner with a No. 1 starting spot in the 2013 Daytona 500. Her eighth-place finish in that same race is best in the series by a female racer as well.

She closes her NASCAR career with seven top-10 finishes, another high-water mark, in 191 career starts.

"I'm thrilled," Eury said of the opportunity to have worked with Patrick under such special circumstances. "That just shows me that I made an impact on her driving career in NASCAR and it makes me feel really good."

The pair had come full circle -- Eury served as crew chief for Patrick early in her career when she began the transition to NASCAR during her tenure at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

There will be those who will note Patrick failed to win a race, that she was not competitive in top-notch equipment provided to her by SHR.

No, she did not win. It's worth noting, however, that others have had mixed results with similar equipment.

The fact that she had the talent and ability to compete at the top level of NASCAR for more than five years says as much about her as any statistical comparisons.

Her departure will be NASCAR's loss.

As for Sunday?

"It was competitive. That's all you can do," Patrick said. "That's the gamble about Daytona. It can go so well and it can go so awful."

Much like her NASCAR career, it seems.

Kenny Bruce is a freelance writer who has been covering motorsports for more than 35 years. He is a three-time George Cunningham Writer of the Year Award winner and recipient of the Henry McLemore Award for continued excellence in journalism.