Danica returns to Daytona seeking better finish

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Danica Patrick made history in the season-opening Daytona 500, where she hit new milestones again and again and again.

She became the first woman to earn the top starting spot in a Sprint Cup event with her pole-winning run, then became the first woman to lead laps under green at NASCAR’s top level on race day. Those five laps out front put her in an exclusive club of only 13 drivers who have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.

And of the 13 in that club, only six of them _ Patrick, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart _ have led at least five laps in each race.

Then Patrick finished eighth _ the highest for a woman in Daytona 500 history.

As NASCAR heads back to Daytona for Saturday night’s race under the lights, her crew chief expects much of the same from Patrick.

“Goals for July are the same as they were in February when we went to Daytona,” Tony Gibson said. “We want to go down there and we want to make a statement.”

Well, then.

Gibson has every intention of seeing Patrick put the bright green No. 10 Chevrolet on the pole again. But this time he wants to see her get the finish she deserves.

Patrick learned a hard lesson in the closing laps of the 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. schooled her with a late move that catapulted him to a second-place finish. There are some who also thought she might have had a chance to win it a few laps earlier if she’d pulled out of traffic and cut off the bottom lane _ a move that might have forced the line of traffic to push her to the lead.

“We want to try to sit on the pole again, obviously, and this time come up a few spots,” Gibson said. “We felt like we had a shot to win it, ran in the top three or four all day and had a fast car, and it came down to the last lap and kind of got snookered (by Earnhardt) a little bit there at the end. But we felt like we were definitely in contention to win it, so we’re going back there with the same mindset, to try to be the fastest car in qualifying and try to close the deal at the end of this thing.”

Patrick wasn’t pleased with the final outcome in February.

“I was disappointed at the end of the race that I just didn’t have a better grasp as to what I needed to do to shoot for a better finish than where I was,” she said.

Stewart, the team co-owner, has tried to explain to Patrick she should be content with the race she ran. But she can’t help but look back and wonder how things might have gone if she had the experience to set up a strategy in the closing laps.

“I just felt like I was just frustrated that I didn’t have a better plan,” she said. “Tony said to me, `I really feel like you had more to lose in your position than you had to gain by trying something, so I think that you did the right thing.’ That made me feel better. A little bit.”

Jimmie Johnson, who went on to win his second 500 in a row, told Patrick she also did a good job and that he didn’t have a plan for either of his victories. He also watched a video of the race and found only one thing she could have done different _ back up to Earnhardt as he set her up for his pass.

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