DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The fans tuned in hoping Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race would be Danica Patrick's coronation as America's Princess of Speed. After all, she was starting on the pole for the first time in her career and had hopes of driving to her first victory in the Driver4COPD 300.
Instead, she was punted into the wall by JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt on Lap 50.
Patrick was furious when she brought her damaged race car into the garage area as crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and crew helped repair the crumpled GoDaddy Chevrolet. Once those repairs were finally completed and the race was in its final stages, Patrick stormed out of her transporter.
She would return to the contest with 22 laps left and eventually finished 38th in a race that ended with a huge crash at the front of the field as Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart were all battling for the win in the final lap. Joey Logano moved to the outside while Trevor Bayne was beside Stewart. Bayne moved with Logano, pinched Stewart's car into the fourth turn wall, triggering the huge crash that ended the race.
Unheralded James Buescher survived to win in a Chevrolet followed by Brad Keselowski's Dodge. Chevrolet drivers rounded out the top five with Elliott Sadler third, Whitt fourth and rookie Austin Dillon fifth. But more about that later.
This was a race where NASCAR was confident Patrick would be a focal point. But her time in the spotlight didn't last long and that led to her fiery temperament and a lengthy cool down period while her car was being repaired.
"I like that," said Eury. "I'd rather have a fire than an old cold stove. I want someone as competitive as me. I want her to get after it. I'd rather calm her down than have to fire her up. When you are buckled down in that seat you will say anything to anybody and that is part of the sport.
"Hell, me and Dale Earnhardt Jr. did that 10 years ago."
As the pole sitter, Patrick chose the outside lane rather than start the race on the inside so that she could get a push from her Nationwide Series team owner Earnhardt. That strategy worked well as Earnhardt pushed her into the lead and away from the field in a two-car tandem. But Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse drafted past the lead tandem on Lap 3. Her Sprint Cup team owner, Stewart, teamed up with former Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish, Jr. as Patrick dropped back to fifth place.
Patrick was like a yo-yo in the first 20 laps of the race. She faded as far back as 15th before teaming up with Stewart to move forward to seventh before dropping back to 13th. But that is the nature of this style of racing as the tandem remains in vogue in Nationwide because of the shape of the cars. At one point she even scraped the outside wall but was able to continue.
Patrick was fourth when Jason Bowles blew up on Lap 30 but faded all the way back to 24th place on Lap 45. When she got hit by her teammate Whitt five laps later, Patrick said over her radio: "What the [bleep] was he thinking?"
"He hit the [bleep] out of you," Eury, Jr. responded.
When Patrick returned to the racetrack she thanked her crew for spending the time to get her back on the racetrack, even though she gained just one position by returning.
"Guys, thanks for getting the car back together at least for a few laps," she said. "All this little stuff will pay off at the end of the year."
The race would ultimately end in mayhem but Patrick was able to avoid the trouble and make the most out of a bad day -- one that was filled with so much promise earlier -- and then Patrick and Whitt had a chance to explain the incident.
"We were just doing big pack racing and went into Turn 3, got a little tap, got a little bit sideways, saved it, got hit again and couldn't save it," Patrick said. "You saw the rest from there. I don't think it is ever great when teammates come together but we'll have to figure out what happened and move forward.
"Before that my car was really, really fast. Even when guys were tandem racing in front of me I was able to hang right with them. The GoDaddy car was very fast. The bummer of it is not only is it the start to the championship and now I'm in the championship and every race matters and every point matters which is why we got out there again but there are other days when your car isn't great or isn't perfect of super fast and nothing happens to you, you think why on the days when you have a really fast car does it have to happen today. But it did and we move on."
Whitt was able to avoid any trouble and survived with a fourth-place finish.
"She pulled out, and the spotter was just saying, 'Hook up with each other and go.' I was just trying to get hooked up with her," Whitt explained. "I gave her one shove, and she got out too far away. Just trying to get hooked back up, I guess I just pushed her around. I mean, it's just a plate race. Not a whole lot of room to do it, just trying to get something doing. It's probably too early anyway.
"I didn't mean to turn her around or anything. It's just trying to get hooked up and do the two-car tandem and got turned around in it. I got ahold of her in the corner, and that's probably what turned her around. I got to her back bumper at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you know? So that's about it. I kind of got ahold of her into the corner. Like I said, I got her once on the backstretch pretty good, and she must have got off me a little too much. When she backed up on me just getting in the corner, I gave her another shove. Just trying to get hooked up and couldn't do it."
When Whitt was told that Patrick was fuming mad, he expected that kind of response.
"I wouldn't expect her to be happy about it," Whitt said. "I wouldn't be happy about it either. I don't know why anyone would expect her to be like, 'Oh yeah, that's great.' We're teammates. We want our teams to win, and that's why we were trying to push each other there anyway. We want to get our team up front, together."
The two drivers will talk because Eury will make sure of that. The man in charge of JR Motorsports doesn't expect a feud between the two teammates and is confident it will be old news by the time the two return to action next week at Phoenix International Raceway.
"She was angry; I was fine," Eury said. "It's very unfortunate but I never sat on the pole here and I was tickled to death. I would have loved to have won this race and run better but that is part of racing. We had a half a good weekend. It's a race. We've got 32 more. Our biggest deal coming in here was to run really good in the first 10 races to have a shot at the championship. Now we go to Phoenix and Vegas and we have to come out of the box strong and make up some ground."
The end of the race gave the fans plenty of the same action, excitement and carnage that fans expect to see at Daytona International Speedway. And it also produced a surprise winner after all the big names were involved in the big crash in the fourth turn at the end of the race.
"It happened quick but it was slow in the moment," Buescher said. "They all just turned into the wall together and I had time to point my car to the bottom and make it to the apron. I kept it straight, made it through, dodged all the bullets and was the only car to make it to the front. It's cool that we led the last lap. We didn't lead any before that. But I'd rather the last lap be the easy one and seal it off like we did today."
Patrick was able to give a brief moment of reflection but realizes that there is one more race for her at Daytona this weekend. That's her first career Sprint Cup start in the biggest race of them all -- the Daytona 500.
"It's so frustrating when you have one of those kids of cars and it's gone," she said. "There are other days when you don't have that kind of car and nobody finds your bumper. It's very frustrating when you have a fast car and Tony Eury Jr. gave me a great one and sat on the pole. I thought it was a lot of fun and quite chaotic. I'm glad the fans were entertained.
"Obviously we've got the Daytona 500 tomorrow for the first time. I can't dwell on today. I have to buckle down and focus on the things I need to get ready for tomorrow and the big day. Hopefully, we have a better day."