Well, that wasn't so bad, now was it?
Danica Patrick spent weeks offering the proper amount of deference to the reputation and legend of one of NASCAR's most difficult and revered tracks. She spent much of Friday finally learning firsthand how intimidating Darlington Raceway can be, in a first trip there or 20th.
But with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and spotter TJ Majors designing her path and strategy, and Sprint Cup owner Tony Stewart chiming onto team radio to offer valuable minutia about driving lines and concepts, Patrick endured the daunting 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval for a 12th-place finish that was the best ever for a female in 28 NASCAR races there.
Patrick's finish bested Patty Moise's 13th-place result in a September 2005 Nationwide race. On Saturday, Patrick will attempt more history, personal and NASCAR, when she becomes just the third female to start a Sprint Cup race there. In her second-ever Cup start, Patrick will join legend Janet Guthrie (who was 16th in 1977) and Shawna Robinson (42nd in 2002) as female starters at the rural South Carolina track.
Patrick beamed after the finish, responding to a question about all the "voices in her head " -- as in Majors, Eury and Stewart on the radio -- with a giggly impersonation of her midrace thought bubble.
"I had the ones going, 'Try harder!' 'Be braver!' 'No, be smarter,' 'Be patient,'" she said.
Racing at Darlington has been tamer than its slogan suggests since the facility was repaved in 2007, but it remains tricky, properly evidenced by race leader Elliott Sadler being bumped off the lead and into the wall with five scheduled laps left by eventual winner Joey Logano. Patrick began the subsequent green/white/checker restart 11th and was passed by veteran Joe Nemechek, whom she had shadowed much of the race to learn racing lines.
"Sorry I couldn't get us a top 10 there," she said over team radio.
Such was an unthinkable prospect entering the race, but she was able to manage a generally loose race car through peril, coming from a lap down by taking a wave-around under caution. And she did it without even adorning the No. 7 Chevrolet with the customary "Darlington Stripe," the smear of paint along the right side of cars caused by brushing the backstretch walls. Patrick had found the wall plenty earlier as she practiced both the Nationwide and Cup cars in a bustling day that began with a 7 a.m. rookie meeting. She was slow early in the day, worst among Cup cars, but improved to 24th by the final practice.
There had been great concern in her Stewart-Haas Cup team camp that she may have had to qualify into that race had the No. 10 Chevrolet fallen outside the top 35 in owners points and the boundary of assured entry. Patrick's eventual 38th-best qualifying time -- albeit run in a low-pressure situation -- would have been good enough to make the race if needed. Somewhere along the busy schedule, she developed a stiff neck and ingested an electrolyte drink before the start of the Nationwide race.
"It's nice to come away from a place like Darlington, a really challenging place that deserves respect, and have a decent run," said Patrick, who qualified 15th.
It was more than decent in comparison to her previous results in her first full-time Nationwide season, tied for second best in nine starts this year. Patrick was a season-best eighth at Texas three races ago and also finished 12th in the third race of the season at Las Vegas. She was 13th last week at Talladega. All of those finishes came on large, sweeping speedways where her IndyCar experience held some bearing. Darlington was a complete learning experience. By midway through the race, with Patrick growing more comfortable, the voices in her head, as on the radio, already had begun offering tips on using the race to set up the Cup start on Saturday.
"Twelfth. Proud of you, girl," Eury said over team radio after the race.