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Despite bad start, Patrick thankful for experience

February 28, 2012, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Danica Patrick's car might not have been pretty, but it gave her the experience she craved. (Turner Sports New Media)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Early wreck dashes dreams, but she's pleased with opportunity to get more laps

What ultimately was a brutal debut Sprint Cup Series weekend for Danica Patrick continued Monday night in the Daytona 500.

But despite getting caught up in a swirling, six-car melee on just the Great American Race's second lap -- the third no-fault accident she's been involved in during a five-day stretch -- Patrick spent a workmanlike 138 laps getting as much experience as she could once her Stewart-Haas Racing crew repaired her wounded car.

"There wasn't much to gain, as far as position-wise, but what there was to gain was for me to get the experience of running out there."

--DANICA PATRICK

"Every lap that I turn is a progression, that's for sure," Patrick said on pit road after the race. "That's why I was so proud of everyone working so hard -- and they were working hard -- to get me back on the track. There wasn't much to gain, as far as position-wise, but what there was to gain was for me to get the experience of running out there."

The most positive aspect of her 500 came immediately after Patrick left the garage in a car which she had no idea how it would perform. Patrick immediately jumped into the midst of a drafting pack and, after working for several laps with SHR teammate Ryan Newman, set her best lap of the race to that point after swinging to the outside to pass Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Once she was up to speed, Patrick cranked off consistent laps of 45.97 seconds, 45.287, 45.377, 45.348, 45.341, 45.237, 45.724, 45.629, 45.576 and 45.007 on lap 78, her best to that point. It definitely left her wondering "what if..."

Patrick eventually clocked her best lap of the night at 44.763 seconds, an average speed of 201.059 mph. Having enough speed to compete wasn't enough though.

"I've got to get further up the grid [because] the further you are up front, the less things happen," Patrick said of her three days of wrecks. "Every time the accident happened I was further back in the field. The further up front you are the better off you are -- but then again, you need that experience to get further up front, which is what I'm trying to get.

"So I'm sure this is not new territory for a new driver, I just wish it could have gone better for everybody that was so excited -- especially the fans. It was great to see them cheering all the way around the track, even when we were parked on the back straight [under a red flag with 40 laps to go]. But it would have been nice to have a solid finish."

Patrick's stock car career, in its first 29 races, has been marked by patience, a level head and applying every lesson she learns. Every one of those attributes was tested Monday evening and into Tuesday morning, when the race finally ended.

Patrick started the Great American Race in 29th after she was an innocent bystander in a devastating wreck during her Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race.

After just one lap in the Daytona 500, which was delayed more than 30 hours, eighth starter Jimmie Johnson's car was turned sideways entering Turn 1. Just before she got to Johnson, Patrick's car was tipped, and it slid into Johnson's car with her car's left-rear. Patrick slid into the infield and passed between the still-wrecking cars of David Ragan and Trevor Bayne without making additional contact.

Patrick was instructed to drive her car to its garage stall on the race's third lap. Once it was there, her crew cut and hacked and even welded -- replacing the complete rear-end assembly and the left-side truck arm -- a critical rear-suspension piece.

After effecting body repairs to the left side, between the driver's door and the left-rear wheel, as well as to the left front fender with liberal applications of Bearbond adhesive sheets, Patrick was back on track, 62 laps down to the leaders.

Patrick's affinity for her team was borne out when she came on her in-car radio and said "thanks for working so hard to get me back out."

As she drove to the garage's exit gate, where her spotter, Mark Robertson, instructed her to wait until the cars racing had completed their pit cycle, Patrick displayed her level-headed mastery of her latest situation.

"I'll let you know if anything feels weird," Patrick said, before questioning Robertson on where she should start out running. "I'd rather learn. I don't want to ruin anyone's day, but I want to learn, too."

As the race restarted, Patrick immediately got up to speed and Robertson instructed to help Newman in the draft, which she did before he moved high and went on. Five laps later, she moved up and past Stenhouse Jr.

During several caution periods, Patrick proved capable of providing detailed feedback to Robertson and her crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. Later, she tried to sum up her experience.

"I kind of feel like I almost need to put the whole week in perspective -- it's just been up and down," Patrick said. "Everything from running good in the Duels to crashing on the last lap, to qualifying on the pole [in the Nationwide Series], to running well in the Nationwide to crashing; and a lot of this stuff, obviously, is out of your control at times and that's kind of the exciting thing about Daytona and big tracks is that anything can happen and will happen as we've seen.

"But I learned a lot. I got a lot of experience and I'm really proud of the crew putting the car back together. They had to do some welding and whatnot. But I got back out there. It felt all right considering the fact that they were welding. I think it felt really good."

There was no mistaking the fact that the large crowd of fans that persevered through a day and a half of bad weather cheered raucously when Patrick came out of the garage with her tape-plastered day-glo green-and-orange car.

She smiled wanly at the thought.

"It's disappointing," Patrick said of finishing 38th, 64 laps behind race winner Matt Kenseth. "I would have loved to have gotten a great finish. I would have loved to have been able to run on the lead lap there at the end. I feel bad for disappointing my fans who were cheering for me -- especially going out so early.

"But I'll come back stronger."

Watch highlights from the Daytona 500: