Danica Patrick avoided the drama and crashes to salvage a 10th-place finish in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday.
For Patrick, it was a career-high finish on the one-mile track and her 10th top-10 showing of the season.
Patrick, who qualified 14th earlier in the day, complained of her brakes vibrating in the early laps. Although she dropped to 16th in the first circuit, the first of 10 cautions on Lap 2 immediately slowed the pace. By Lap 10, Patrick felt "the car coming to her" and 10 laps later she was battling veteran Mike Bliss for position.
Spotter Tab Boyd reminded Patrick to "stay cool."
"I know he's hard-headed," Boyd added as she made the pass. "Even though that guy held us up, the leader isn't that far gone."
By the second caution on Lap 31, Patrick reported the car was "a little bit bouncy and loose starting off. ... Now I feel just a tiny bit tight getting into the bottom. What's up with this brake situation? They're vibrating, pulsating a lot."
She entered the pits in 15th, and crew chief Ryan Pemberton opted for left-side tires only. Patrick was 11th on the Lap 37 restart and lost one spot again. Boyd reminded her to keep digging on the bottom of the track. In three laps, Patrick returned to the top 10.
"Beautiful," Boyd said. "Just like that."
Patrick was "still concerned" with how her brakes were reacting on Lap 48 and eventually allowed Sam Hornish Jr. to pass her for position 14 laps later.
When John Blankenship spun on Lap 70, Patrick was still running 11th. The team opted for a four-tire pit stop.
"I was pumping the brakes through every braking zone," Patrick said. "Something feels really weird, like when I turn the wheel it turns too much. It's (expletive) weird." Patrick restarted 16th on Lap 75 and gained three positions in the next five laps.
"That's kick-ass right there," Boyd said. "Pulling away."
"It's a mess out here," Patrick replied.
"That's why you're going to be disciplined through the corner," Boyd responded.
But nine laps later, the pace was slowed again when Paulie Harraka spun in Turn 4. Patrick restarted ninth on Lap 94 and again lost positions as the field went back to racing. By Lap 97, the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet dropped to 12th. Three laps later, Austin Dillon passed her on the inside for position, which sent Patrick on a tear. Over the next eight circuits, she picked up two positions, prompting Boyd to radio, "Damn good job."
When Dillon passed her again on Lap 116, Patrick radioed: "I know the 3 is fast, but he's going to make mistakes."
Six laps later, Noel Dowler ignited the sixth caution. Patrick told the crew to "pull more tape" on the next pit stop while Pemberton called for a left-side tire change and a chassis adjustment. Patrick restarted ninth on Lap 124, dropped to 10th over the next two laps and dealt with Brian Scott blocking her over the next five laps. After she was able to pass him for ninth place, Boyd promised "a little fresh track" ahead. But Patrick developed a loose condition.
On Lap 135, Pemberton told Patrick she had the fastest car on the track. Her progress was slowed again when Timmy Hill spun on Lap 148.
"I'm a little faster. I just can't roll it the way I want to," Patrick said. The team contemplated stopping, but Patrick reminded the team that "position is huge from here," and she remained on the track as three cars ahead opted to pit and she was able to restart a race-high sixth on Lap 153.
"Do what you've been doing," Boyd suggested. "Stay after it, but be disciplined."
Patrick went high out of the groove on the restart. As Brad Keselowski was shuffled out up front, she dropped back to seventh but gained one position when Hornish spun to bring out the seventh caution on Lap 156. Patrick found herself three-wide on the restart lap with Dillon and Michael Annett and fell back to eighth. In six laps, Patrick was 13th and dropped to 16th by Lap 165. Again, Dillon became her catalyst and Patrick went on the attack.
"The 3 is all over the place," Patrick said before gaining three spots over the next five laps.
"It's not bad," Patrick said. "It's a little tight in the center, but track position is so big."
The team opted to pit for four tires and a splash of fuel. Although Patrick restarted 19th, Pemberton told her to "use them up here." From the restart on Lap 183 to 186, Patrick gained four positions. She moved up to 14th on Lap 188, and Boyd reminded Patrick that every car is a spot.
Dowler caused a second caution on Lap 190. After five laps under yellow, Boyd warned Patrick to "get ready for anything here." But he couldn't have predicted the game changer that occurred nine laps later, when the series point leader Elliott Sadler became overly aggressive with Justin Allgaier and Cole Whitt and collected Brendan Gaughan in the process.
After a 10-minute red-flag period, Patrick rolled off 13th on Lap 202 for an overtime shootout. She gained three positions throughout the green-white-checkered finish.
"Nice move, 10th place," Boyd said.
"Way to get after it there. We need more of those," Pemberton said. "We'll keep working on it here, and let's give them hell next week."
"Thanks, guys," Patrick replied. "That was definitely the strongest race I've had on this racetrack, so thank you. Thank you for the coaching."
Patrick remains 10th in the Nationwide Series driver points.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished third, took over the points lead from Sadler. Sadler was scored 22nd and trails Stenhouse by 20 points. Sixth-place finisher Dillon also remains in the title hunt with just the season finale remaining at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. He's 25 points behind Stenhouse.