With Danica Patrick's experience at Texas Motor Speedway, Saturday night's performance should have been her career-best at the track.
Certainly, her 14th-place finish in the Nationwide Series event was not indicative of her body of work in the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge.
Patrick rolled off eighth. With several adjustments to the track bar and tires in the first half of the race, the car was dialed in to her liking. Throughout the night, she would pass 52 cars under green flag conditions.
However, problems with a right front tire forced Patrick to pit prematurely and cost her valuable track position.
Patrick was comfortably running sixth on Lap 131 when she radioed: "I've got to pit, pit." She quickly turned down pit road and told the crew: "I think the right front was going down." Her spotter, Tab Boyd, told Patrick that the tire was not only going down, but it was also "shredded." Crew chief Ryan Pemberton reassured Patrick: "You did a great job of getting on pit road, great call, great call."
Although Patrick restarted 18th, one circuit off the lead lap, with fresh tires she was able to make up ground. Boyd told Patrick: "This might turn out to be pretty damn good," as she gained three positions in six laps. When she was up to 14th, Patrick said: "Already a little bit tight, so I'm trying to take care of it."
On Lap 140, as the leaders started green-flag pit stops, Boyd suggested Patrick run in the middle groove to avoid cars dropping off the track. By Lap 143, Patrick cycled back to the lead lap and up to eighth place. One lap later, Patrick was a race-high fourth. She was told to conserve her equipment for long runs and quickly apologized for losing time over the bumps in the middle lane.
Pemberton warned Patrick that her fuel window would be about 10 laps short of running the full distance on Lap 147, but seven laps later, the fourth caution enabled the Patrick to pit for fuel and return to the same fuel strategy as the lead cars.
But Patrick developed a tight condition. Pemberton called for a half turn of the track bar and four tires.
"I'm afraid that my balance is so tight right now that we're going to lose track position," Patrick said.
Patrick lined up 11th for the Lap 160 restart. Pemberton reassured his driver by complimenting her call to pit earlier: "That's as good as I've ever seen anyone do that."
Boyd encouraged Patrick for the restart, "Use them up, you've been doing a great job."
Patrick lost three positions in the first two laps but cycled out to 13th by Lap 166. Six laps later, she was 12th - but not making up ground as quickly as she had at the start of the race.
"Damn, this thing is just not hooked up like it was," Patrick said as the fifth and final caution was ignited by Joe Nemechek. "The right rear is too hot; it's not rotating. I have no grip in the right rear. And I'm tight so I can't use the rear to turn the car or I get loose. It's just not good right now."
Patrick remained on the track while others opted to pit. She was warned that Denny Hamlin, who restarted behind her, had fresh tires. However, she believed that retaining her 10th-place position on the track was the "safer bet."
On Lap 182, the final restart, Patrick dropped to 12th and then 14th on the next lap. She regained 12th two laps later but fell back to 14th again with 13 laps to go.
"Well, this was a much better day than this," Patrick said as she held her own in the closing laps.
Although Boyd kept her from harm's way, Patrick held on to 14th and retained 10th in the point standings.
"Holy (crap) I felt like I was on ice at the end," Patrick told the team. "The grip level felt like it was 100 degrees and sunny out.
"You guys did a nice job. There's nothing we could do about getting a flat tire. We had all the right stuff at the end if we wouldn't have. There's just nothing we could do about that."
Kevin Harvick won his fifth Nationwide Series race on the 1.5-mile track with rookie Ryan Blaney posting a career-high second-place finish in his 12th start.