DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was no mistaking the love. Danica Patrick got one of the largest bursts of applause when introduced for Sunday’s Daytona 500 — her last NASCAR race — then made her ceremonial lap around the famous Daytona International Speedway. She soaked in the cheers and good wishes and was genuinely moved by the standing ovation she received from the sold-out crowd.
However, her time in the race car ended a lap past the halfway mark as she was collected in a multicar accident that also ended the day for race favorites Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick among others.
Patrick was uncharacteristically emotional — wiping away tears — when she announced last November that she would run this final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. But ever the focused competitor, she managed a smile and logical dissection of her day when speaking to the media after her crash.
She seemed at peace.
“It just wasn’t meant to be today,” Patrick said after getting the “all-clear” from Daytona’s infield care center. “I am proud. We raced the whole race other than a little bit at the end of that first stage when it looked silly with all the cars with tires and no tires.
“Other than that, we raced it and the car was competitive. That is all you can do. That is the gamble at Daytona. It can go so well, and it can go so awful.
“I’m grateful for everything. Thank you to all the fans. Still have one more. It is not a stock car, but still have one more.”
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Her crew chief Tony Eury Jr. came off the sideline specifically to work with Patrick again as she closed out her NASCAR career — a proper bookend to the pairing. The two had been together when Patrick first started racing stock cars, even as she was completing her IndyCar career.
“We didn’t want things to end like that,” Eury said, standing in the garage with the Premium Motorsports crew next to Patrick’s damaged car. “Definitely one of our biggest goals was just to come in here and finish the race and if we could get a solid top 10 that was great, a win — that’s a story.
“The first wreck they had, she was running in the back of the field and I saw them dicing and I told her, ‘Get away from them, they’re getting ready to do something’ and they did.”
Eury said he was touched that Patrick asked him to lead her final NASCAR effort — officially a 35th-place finish.
“It just shows me I made an impact on her driving career in NASCAR and it makes me feel really good,” Eury said. “I told her I was really honored that she asked me to come to do this deal.
“The whole deal coming down here was we’re going to have fun and try to run the best we can and she had a lot of confidence I would bring her a good Daytona 500 car and everybody here at Premium is really good as far as making this happen really quick.
“We were right where we needed to be but had to finish to pull it off.”
As pre-race festivities winded down earlier in the day before Patrick’s final NASCAR green flag, Patrick stood alongside her bright green No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet on the starting grid, surrounded by family and close friends. Her parents Bev and TJ were there, as was her new boyfriend, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and her sister Brooke and Brooke’s two young daughters.
Patrick enthusiastically posed for photographs with her loved ones in front of her car and seemed truly at ease with the big day. Rodgers gave her a kiss just before she slid her long hair into a ponytail and climbed into the car.
“Funny story is when she first started at 10, I told my wife, ‘She’s going to change racing,’ ” her proud father said while standing beside her car on the starting grid.
“I’ve been in racing my whole life and I saw that she was different.
“She’s done a lot. Would we like to have better results? I think every driver would.
“Hopefully this has opened the door for some little kids but mainly what I feel is, you don’t have to be a girl, it could be the boys, but [she’s shown] you can do whatever you like if you really, really, REALLY try.”