DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | All Danica Patrick could see was smoke ahead of her on the track.
And just like that, her much-anticipated NASCAR debut ended in a 12-car wreck in today’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Patrick had moved from 27th to 21st when Josh Wise banged into rookie Colin Braun, starting a chain reaction of wrecks in turn four of the 69th lap. She was boxed in traffic, and with the smoke billowing from colliding cars blinding her, Patrick ricocheted off Wise’s car, skidded across the grass and settled into a stop with heavy damage to the right-front fender of her GoDaddy.com Chevrolet.
“I literally couldn’t see a thing,” Patrick told a crush of reporters afterward. “That’s the problem. If we could figure out how to have the tires make no smoke, there would be a lot less crashed race cars, but unfortunately that’s the inevitable of what’s going to happen here.
“It’s also the product of racing so close together. You don’t give yourself any gap to take some open space or see anything. I was just caught up in an accident like so many other people get in these big speedways.”
Indeed, 22 laps after Patrick’s incident, her JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was struck from behind by Brad Keselowski, and as he started spinning, Earnhardt flipped upside down when hit by Kyle Busch and was knocked back on his tires after he was hit by Brendan Gaughan.
“It was kind of expensive,” Earnhardt said of his two wrecked cars. “I’m going to have to go back and balance our books after this one. It was a rough day for JR Motorsports.”
The race was red-flagged for 11 laps after the wreck involving Earnhardt, and once it resumed, Sprint Cup regular Tony Stewart won the season-opening preliminary to today’s Daytona 500 -- his fifth victory in the last six February Nationwide races at Daytona. In a 1-2-3 finish of Cup regulars, Carl Edwards of Columbia was second for the second straight year, and Kevin Harvick, who owns Stewart’s Nationwide car, was third.
But most of the attention was focused on Patrick, one of the stars of the open-wheel IndyCar Series, who ended up 35th today. Patrick made her stock-car debut last week when she finished sixth in an ARCA race here and will run 12 more Nationwide Series events this year, including next week at California.
Patrick skillfully avoided a wreck that took out eight drivers in turn two of the eighth lap.
“I can relate to the very first one at the beginning of the race when I was up high, and some cars came together in front of me,” said Patrick. “There was smoke, and I held my line and slowed down, and they went from crashing in front of me to sliding down the track a little bit, so I missed it.”
From that point on, Patrick seemed content to stay in the rear of the pack and steer clear of trouble.
“I definitely dropped back, but I wasn’t comfortable,” said Patrick, who started 15th, based on owners points after qualifying was rained out on Friday. “So I wasn’t about to go firing it in to stay up where I started and crash. Then we made a stop, and we made an adjustment, and we got more comfortable.
“I was running in the pack, I felt much better, the car felt better, I was more confident, and I’m just going to take away the fact I know what it’s going to be like out there come next year. Everybody wants to do well at the Daytona race, and I’m glad I got this head start on next year.”