It would appear that the Daytona 500 wasn’t a fluke after all for Danica Patrick.
Back in the February season-opener, the Sprint Cup rookie was a threat to win on the final lap before settling for an eighth-place finish. And tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona brought more confirmation that she has a firm grip on restrictor-plate racing, as she rose as high as second and stayed in the lead pack in the race’s second half.
Unfortunately for her, a potential Top-10 run was scratched in the final moments as she and David Gilliland made contact. Patrick was turned around and a multi-car crash in the tri-oval began as Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag just ahead.
After the incident, Patrick explained that she was looking to follow Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish.
“Junior and I had a good run through the middle and then up high around [Turn] 4,” said Patrick, who was credited with an 14th place finish. “It felt like I ran just along the wall but it could have been me that came down in front of the No. 38 [Gilliland].
“It definitely wasn’t what I was trying to do at all. I was just following the No. 88 [Earnhardt]. So, if that’s what happened, then I definitely apologize. I lost spots doing it.”
Patrick fell back in tonight’s early stages but caught a break that enabled her to get into the Top 10 by pitting just before a caution came out on Lap 71. She moved into the Top 5 after another set of yellow-flag stops around Lap 100, and at Lap 108, she was running right behind Johnson.
Following through on her intent to be more aggressive in her Daytona return, Patrick hooked onto the back of Earnhardt during the green-white-checkered finish (which she started from ninth position). She found herself sliding across the finish line in the end, but that didn’t cause her to second-guess her decision, however.
When the checkered flag is looming, it’s every driver for themselves, after all.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do on those last laps,” she said.