Danica Patrick on her wild ride into the Daytona 500 field: ‘It felt dire’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Whether watching a familiar car creep closer in her mirror or a starting spot in the Daytona 500 flash before her eyes, Danica Patrick didn’t like the view Thursday.

“Holy crap, it felt dire,” she said. “This whole scenario is crazy that the series has put us in.  Actually, I said yesterday it’s horrible that it’s left up to other people and what they can do to you to whether or not you get in the race.

“I was like, I just need to not get caught up in anything or have something like yesterday happen.  And the exact same thing as yesterday happened.”

For the second consecutive day, Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet crashed at Daytona International Speedway with Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota in the vicinity. After a Wednesday afternoon wreck, Patrick started in a backup car at the rear of Thursday night’s second Budweiser Duel qualifying race.

She will start 20th in another backup car for Sunday’s Daytona 500 after crashing on Lap 57 of a scheduled 60. With Patrick almost certainly needing to finish in the top 16 to make the Great American Race, she restarted in 18th (after multiple stops for repairs) for a green-white-checkered finish and rallied for a 10th that ended a nerve-wracking 32 hours.

“There was a million scenarios of like who does what in any race, who uses a provisional and who doesn’t,” she said. “You can just drive yourself crazy thinking about all of them.

“ Instead of thinking about all of the stuff I need to do to just make the race, I really just wanted to focus on having a good race. In the race, I made a few moves here and there to make progress. Everything was going fine till the end.  I felt good about it.”

After the crash, Patrick felt sick to her stomach, but a push from Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch propelled her to the top 10.

“When they told me I need to pass these two cars,  you’re 18th right now, I was like, ‘OK, do I have to be desperate basically? Do I have to pass these cars?’ Nobody answered me. I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to be desperate,’ ” she said. “Luckily, Kurt was there for me. Without Kurt, I wouldn’t have finished where I did. So a big humongous thank you to Kurt for getting behind me and pushing me to the front.”

Patrick, who became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 a decade ago, is accustomed to the scrutiny of the spotlight, but she admitted to feeling more pressure Thursday than ever.

“That’s probably safe to say,” she said. “I’ve by all means been nervous at times.  Probably two years ago starting on the pole, I always get more nervous the further up I start.

“But this is a whole different nervous.  A lot of it has to do with the fact there’s so much out of our hands as drivers.  That’s my frustration.  It’s one thing if it’s qualifying and then you go race at a traditional track where you pass.  But this is just big pack racing where you just hope you don’t get into a wreck or somebody doesn’t get into you. So there’s a lot of stressing out.  But there’s not much you can do about it.  You just have to hope and pray for the best, be as smart as you can.”

Hamlin and Patrick engaged in a heated conversation in the pits afterward. Though Hamlin said he didn’t hit her, he later took the blame for the incident on Twitter and implied Patrick might have been right he was too close to her car.

“We’re going to have to figure it out because  this isn’t going to end well,” she said. “Twice definitely makes it twice as bad or maybe even more. But after the accident the other day I texted him and said “What happened?” He said, ‘I guess I went to the inside and I guess you came down a little and we hit.’ And I said, “I was driving straight down the straightaway and I just felt the back end come around. And he said, ‘I guess when I cut across your bumper I was so close it pulled it around.’

“So …. I’m not sure what he thinks needs to be different to make it better. I know what needs to be better. He needs to not be quite that close.”