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Welcome, Danica: Patrick gets a crash course in Sprint Cup racing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick's coming out party in Sprint Cup racing's biggest ball of all -- the 54th Daytona 500 -- was pretty much over before it ever really began.

She was involved in a multi-car crash at the start of the second lap that also included five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, David Ragan and Kurt Busch.

She started in three races during Daytona SpeedWeeks and ended up crashed in every one. There was the smash-up on the final lap of last Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona, the bump drafting gone bad from teammate Cole Whitt in Saturday's Nationwide Series race and the second-lap spin-and-crash in her Cup debut on Monday night.

Instead of packing up and heading home, her Stewart-Haas Racing team, which also includes Tommy Baldwin Racing because Patrick started the race using Dave Blaney's 32nd-place points in last year's Cup championship, hammered away at the car in the Daytona garage area.

For the team, it's important to score as many points as possible. The No. 10 car will run in every Sprint Cup race this season, with Patrick competing in nine or 10 and David Reutimann driving in the rest.

But for Patrick, getting back on the track after Monday's early crash was important because she needs to learn how to race against Sprint Cup competition. So when she returned to the race down 32 laps and a non-factor in the outcome, she used the Daytona 500 as an educational tool.

"Any lap that I turn is progression, that's for sure," Patrick said on pit road after the race ended at 1 a.m. ET Tuesday. "That's why I was so proud of everyone working so hard. They were working hard to get me back on the track. Was there much to gain as far as position? No. What there was to gain was for me to get the experience of running out there. We ran in packs for a while. The car is a little bent up. Honestly, it didn't feel perfect. So as it got later and later in the race, I didn't want to have an influence on it. I didn't want something to happen to it or break and shoot across the track.

"And then at the end there, I didn't think we were going to get the first green-white-checkered in, but we did."

Patrick finished 38th, 64 laps back. She was actually lapped by the leader two more times in the race. But at that point, seat time, experience and working with the team were far more valuable to the former IZOD IndyCar Series driver than her finishing position.

"It was very perplexing in my mind," Patrick said. "Do I want to get up there? I have nothing to gain; but I also have nothing to lose. And honestly, I think that I picked up a lot of good tips and I just wish that the beginning of the race could have been a nice single-file line like it was when I got back out there. But it wasn't. And honestly, that's my lesson to learn, maybe ... just write off that first little bit if you're not up front. So unfortunately we have another crashed GoDaddy car but just like the last time it did finish the race, but just in that darned 38th position."

Patrick was anointed as the "Face of NASCAR" by former driver Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and the latest member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. That's ridiculously high praise for a driver who had never driven a Sprint Cup race before Monday night.

That she crashed so early led her critics to roll their eyes and think, "Not again."

But what sets Patrick apart is her fierce determination and never-give-up style. She is a long way from winning a Sprint Cup race, but over time she can be competitive. And once that happens, she will make progress and, who knows, perhaps one day challenge for a victory.

And even with a 38th-place finish, Patrick learned a lot in the first Daytona 500 held on a Monday night. When she returned to the track, she drove smart and cautiously.

But her problems actually began when she crashed on the final lap of Thursday's qualifying race, destroying her primary car. By switching to a backup car, she had to give up her 29th-place starting position and start at the back of the pack. If she had been 29th, instead of trying to drive through the field, she would have been clear of the multi-car crash at the beginning of the second lap.

Wrong place, wrong time.

"I think the power of laying back at the very beginning there -- there's inevitably going to be a crash, especially when you get all the cars out there at one time and everybody kind of shaking out the jitters of the Daytona 500 maybe," she said. "But also knowing that everything happens for a reason and there was some reason that today I had been running down low all the time and then I decided before the race that I wanted to run up high, and I managed to get collected in the first lap accident. So I'm a piece of it. It's disappointing. 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."

For Patrick, it's all a matter of keeping it in perspective.

"It's just been up and down -- everything from running good in the Duels to crashing on the last lap, to qualifying on the pole, to running well in the Nationwide to crashing," said Patrick. "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."

Welcome to NASCAR, Danica Patrick. From here on out, it's going to be a real grind, so it's time to get used to it.

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