Danica Patrick looked set for her best finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series until an incident with 10 laps to go put her out of the race on Saturday at Fontana.
On her second visit to Auto Club Speedway, where she raced in the second-tier series last February, the IndyCar star showed good improvement from qualifying where she managed 14th on the grid, her best starting position for a NASCAR event thus far.
Early in the race she was able to stay within the top 20, although before the first third of the distance was completed she had already dropped a lap down. However during the third caution period of the race and while running 18th, she was able to get back on the lead lap through the "lucky dog" rule that allows the first driver a lap down to be waved around by the pace car.
While she was battling to get closer to a top 10 spot with nine laps to go, she squeezed rookie James Buescher at the exit of Turn 2 and he retaliated, clipping the right rear of Patrick's car, sending it into a spin and against the wall. Her car was massively damaged in the impact and she would eventually drive into the garage to retire from her eighth Nationwide Series outing. Despite being only classified 30th, Patrick took a lot of positives from this weekend's experience.
"There was a lot of positives, really," said Patrick. "We had a decent car to start and we were able to sort of hold our ground. We lost a few spots but kind of started to settle in and we made some adjustments that helped the car turn a little bit better.
"The frustrating part is that I feel I had a really good car for those last few restarts and just pushing hard and using all the road I kind of got into the car that ended up turning me the lap before. I didn't mean to. That next time I got pretty close but I was giving him room. I came off [the corner] and gave him room and looking at the replay it looks like maybe it was avoidable."
Patrick said being at Fontana for the second time definitely made a difference in terms of knowing how to set up the car and get a good consistent balance throughout the race. She lamented that there will not be a second visit to another track this year as her coming NASCAR outings will be at ovals which will be new to her in a stock car. Her next race will be in a week's time at Charlotte.
"I was really happy that the car was good on the long run," said Patrick. "It was good at the beginning, settling in the middle and then I came on at the end. I've been really confused as to what it's going to take to be good from the beginning to the end and I think that we're getting closer, I really do.
"[Crew chief] Tony [Eury Jr.] did a good job setting the car up today, made good changes, he set the car up for the start so that I had confidence and then we freed it up. A lot of things went really well today so I'm very pleased for that. We're having a lot of confidence going into Charlotte, I think. It does make a difference to come back [to a track] for a second time. It's a bummer that there won't be any others."
Kyle Busch claimed a record 12th victory in Saturday's Nationwide Series event, where Kevin Harvick looked dominant but lost a possible win due to delayed pit stops in the closing stages.