Don't sell Danica short on this one

March, 5, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- Anyone who says Danica Patrick had her best NASCAR finish Saturday because of fuel mileage is dead wrong.

Patrick made history with her fourth-place finish, the best ever for a woman in a national NASCAR event.

That record stood for 62 years. Sara Christian finished fifth at Pittsburgh in 1949 during NASCAR's inaugural season.

Patrick is the first woman to lead a lap at Indianapolis and Daytona, the first woman to win a major open-wheel event and the first woman to finish in the top four in a NASCAR touring-series race.

And don't say she lucked out. She earned what she got Saturday in the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide Series race.

True, she wasn't going to finish fourth if not for some of the drivers ahead of her having to pit for fuel in the final laps. But Patrick probably was headed for a top-10 without the fuel-mileage situation.

"We worked so hard on the car this weekend," Patrick said after the race. "We went from loose to tight with the same setup at times. But we had a lot of practice time, which was good."

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. wasn't a bit surprised at what he saw Saturday.

"We knew going in she was capable of finishing in the top 15 this year," Eury said. "But if we got everything right on the car, we could finish in the top 10 with this girl really easily. I would have been upset if we didn't finish in the top 10 today."

Patrick took her lumps last year in her NASCAR debut, but she clearly has made significant improvement this year.

She finished a career-best 14th at Daytona and briefly led the race when Clint Bowyer pushed her to the front. She was a surprising 17th last week at Phoenix, a difficult 1-mile flat oval where she finished 32nd last November.

Patrick expected better results this season and she has delivered.

"I was hoping for a top-10 today," said Patrick, who started 22nd in the No. 7 Chevrolet. "That was my secret goal, but we got a top-5."

She did it the hard way after getting caught a lap down while pitting under green just before a caution came out.

"We missed those Lucky Dogs [a pass onto the lead lap for the first car a lap down on a caution] three times and finally got it," Patrick said. "Then at the end, I asked Tony to take a big swing at it and he did. And it worked, even though I was sliding in the turns at the end."

Patrick has benefited immensely this season from having veteran NASCAR driver Johnny Benson as her driving coach at JR Motorsports.

ESPN analyst Andy Petree, a long-time crew chief who knows a thing or two about drivers, had this to say about Patrick's performance Saturday: "She drove an incredible race, in my opinion."

There's only one problem. She isn't racing enough to keep her momentum going.

Patrick returns to IndyCar soon and now will race in only one Nationwide event a month until the final three races of the season. She's competing in only 12 of 34 Nationwide races.

That's a shame, because Patrick is talented enough to figure this out and become a legitimate stock-car racer with more seat time.

She has to make a difficult decision this year about her future. Her contract is up with Michael Andretti's IndyCar team.

No doubt the last three weeks have encouraged her to make the move full-time to NASCAR in 2012, but she'll have to do it with only 25 Nationwide races under her belt.

Here's the bottom line: Patrick is much more than just a pretty face. She's a racer, but she needs more races on her NASCAR résumé to get where she wants to go.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer


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