DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Danica Patrick got caught in an accident just two laps into her Daytona 500 debut. She eventually got back in the race and made it to the finish, but it was a rough end to a disappointing Daytona Speedweeks for NASCAR's newest star.
After her crew made extensive repairs to her battered race car, Patrick finally returned to the race down 62 laps to the leaders — earning cheers from the grandstands as she pulled out of the garage area. She finished 38th in a wreck-filled race won by Matt Kenseth that was delayed a day because of rain, then came to a screeching halt to repair the track.
"Any lap that I turn is progression, that's for sure," Patrick said. "That's why I was so proud of everyone working hard — and they were working hard to get me back on the track. There wasn't much to gain as far as position-wise, but what there was to gain was for me to get the experience running out there."
The accident came just minutes after the green flag dropped Monday night, beginning when Elliott Sadler turned five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. He shot into the wall, then rolled back down the track.
Patrick was coming along behind the accident and was caught in the chaos.
"I just wish 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," Patrick said. "And honestly, that's my lesson to learn, maybe. Write off that first little bit if you're not up front."
Her car took a hit and swerved down to the infield grass, where she somehow slid between two spinning cars.
That was about the only good luck she's had all week.
Her Daytona Speedweeks tally is three wrecks in three races, and none were of her doing.
Then came Monday, where Patrick once again was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the crash, Patrick's No. 10 team worked furiously to repair her car in the garage, with crew members wielding new parts, heavy-duty tape, tools and even a welding torch.
She remained strapped into her car as the laps ticked away until her crew finally wheeled the car out of the garage. She fired the engine back up, getting cheers from fans watching from a balcony above the garage area.
As the race went on, she mostly tried to make sure she didn't get in the way of the leaders.
"As it got later and later in the race, I just didn't want to play a part," Patrick said. "I didn't want to have an influence on it. I didn't want something to happen to it and break and shoot across the track."
It was the continuation of a disappointing Speedweeks for Patrick, who left IndyCar to concentrate full-time on NASCAR this season. Daytona is one of 10 Sprint Cup Series races Patrick plans to run for Stewart-Haas Racing this season.
She's also running a full season in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.
Neither project is off to a flying start.
Patrick was running well in her qualifying race Thursday when she got caught in a wreck on the last lap of the race, taking a hard, high-speed hit to the impact-absorbing SAFER barrier on the backstretch.
Patrick then won the pole position for the Nationwide race on Saturday, becoming the first woman to win a NASCAR pole position since Shawna Robinson in 1994. But Patrick was caught in a crash when Whitt, her teammate, nudged her rear bumper and sent her spinning into the wall.
Patrick vented her frustration on the radio with her team immediately after the wreck, then acknowledged after the race that she wanted an explanation. Whitt said he didn't mean to wreck Patrick, saying the incident was a result of the bumper-to-bumper style of racing at Daytona.