Auto racing: Danica Patrick finishes 6th in stock car debut
AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bobby Gerhart's record-setting sixth victory at Daytona International Speedway was overshadowed by the successful stock car debut of IndyCar star Danica Patrick, who finished sixth Saturday in the crash-filled ARCA race.
Patrick spent much of the race among the top 10 in her widely anticipated stock car racing debut, but she bumped fenders with Nelson Piquet Jr. and spun out through the infield grass on lap 54, costing her any hopes of a victory.
But she passed several cars in the closing laps of the ARCA season opener, and got as high as fifth with three laps left. But she didn't have enough to catch Gerhart, who has won the ARCA season opener six of the last 12 years. The win snapped a two-year losing streak at Daytona.
"As a little kid, I dreamed of having an opportunity to come here and race," Gerhart said. "When that happens, naturally comes the passion to come out and win, but I couldn't imagine doing it this many times. I've got to tell you, though, I hate the number six. We've got to swing for seven."
Mark Thompson was second, followed by John Wes Townley, James Buescher and Patrick Sheltra.
It was still an impressive start for Patrick, who will race a partial schedule in NASCAR's second-tier racing series for JR Motorsports. She has not yet decided if she will make her NASCAR debut next week in the Nationwide opener at Daytona, and her experience Saturday was going to play a huge factor.
She had not made a decision after the race, but her car owners seemed pleased. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sprinted from the NASCAR drivers meeting to congratulate her, while Rick Hendrick was quick to praise her over the in-car radio.
"You drove the wheels off that thing, girl," Hendrick told her. "We are proud of you."
Patrick replied, "Thank you very much."
The Daytona ARCA race is notorious for its frequent and spectacular crashes — "You need to wear a helmet if you watch it from the stands," driver Scott Speed said earlier in the week — and this year's race was no exception.
The car carnage started early, when Bill Baird's car got wildly loose on lap 7 and collided with Steve Blackburn, resulting in an eight-car pileup.
The accident happened behind Patrick, who slipped one spot after the start and was running 13th at the time.
The race restarted 10 laps later — and the field couldn't even get through a full lap without another wreck.
Dakoda Armstrong's car spun out and was hit hard by Craig Goess, bringing the race to a halt again. Patrick artfully swerved high to avoid the wreck.
Another female driver in the field, Jill George, walked away safely after her car overturned in a frightening accident on lap 27. The race was red flagged in the aftermath of the accident as track safety workers repaired a fence.
Patrick surged to sixth after a pit stop on lap 29, then showed she could run with the leaders.
But she learned about drafting at Daytona the hard way on lap 49, when she moved out of the low groove and lost touch with the leaders, slipping from sixth to 11th.
She noted over her in-car radio that he car was beginning to get loose and slide around on the track — and things were about to get much worse.
On lap 54, Piquet Jr. tapped fenders with Patrick on the frontstretch, spinning Patrick into the infield grass. She made an impressive save, managing to keep her car from sliding back up the wall. After a pair of pit stops, Patrick was able to get back in the race but slipped to 24th.
The most frightening wreck of the day came a few laps later, when Barry Fitzgerald's car went tumbling wildly in the infield grass next to the backstretch. The car flipped seven times before coming to a stop, but Fitzgerald was able to climb out of the car.