After her crash-filled experience leading up to and in the Daytona 500, that’s what Patrick did Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway. Although she was never in position to contend with the top trio of Sadler, Brad Keselowski or Ricky Stenhouse Jr., she brought her Go Daddy Chevrolet home in one piece, finishing 21st in the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200.
“She walked by my bus (last) Saturday after the Nationwide race at Daytona,” said Sadler, sitting alongside team owner Richard Childress at his post-race press conference. “She was all down-and-out. She was explaining to me what happened in the wreck (when) she finished 38th.
“I said, ‘Danica, I finished 38th last year at Daytona, too. I went to Phoenix, finished 12th, I went to Vegas finished 12th, I went to Bristol and finished somewhere in the top 10. Next thing I know I was top-five in points.’
“I said, ‘In the Nationwide Series, if you just see the checkered flag at every event. … get yourself a good finish, you will learn what you need to learn and what you want to learn and you will be where you want to be in the points.”
Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., delivered a similar pre-race message.
“(Finishing) was one of our goals,” he said as Patrick’s Chevrolet was wheeled toward the hauler. “I told her when we started this race, we’re here to finish. We wanted to have just one good, solid race underneath our belt and look forward to going to Vegas next week.
“There are nine short track races we’re going to have trouble with this year,” Eury said. “We’re going to get more experience on them. She’s great at mile-and-a-halfs (like Las Vegas), and we’ve got a lot of potential to have a great run there.”
Qualifying 30th for Saturday’s race hurt Patrick’s pursuit of a top-10 finish. She was a lap down in no time as Denny Hamlin and Harvick turned things into a two-car affair for the early part of the afternoon.
“We wanted to qualify better,” Eury said. “But we hit the wall in practice. We tightened it up some more and when we went to qualify it was too loose. Any time you don’t qualify good, you put yourself at a deficit.”
Despite finishing three laps down, Phoenix was a world of improvement for Patrick, who crashed three times in three races during Speedweeks.
“We’re racing for the (points) championship,” Patrick said. “Results matter, which is why the guys worked so hard to get me back out in Daytona. I think top-10s are the goal for me, especially on short tracks. Short tracks are what I’ve struggled with the most.”
Sadler was well aware of his past struggles at Phoenix, including his race last November that ended his run toward a possible series title.
“I knew that, ‘Man, we got a good car, but this is not our best track,’ ” said Sadler, whose last Nationwide Series win came at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., on Halloween, 1998. He had gone 91 series starts without a Nationwide victory.
“To be able to (go to victory lane) this early in the season give us a world of confidence. There’s not a better feeling in the world when you have someone who believe in you,” he said, referring to Childress.
Sadler came out of the pits trailing Hamlin, Keselowski and Stenhouse with 33 laps remaining but stormed to the front, leading the final 26 laps. He held off a furious charge from Keselowski in the closing laps.
Harvick led 107 of the race’s 200 laps, but the four-tire pit strategy which enabled him to wrest the lead from polesitter Hamlin (who led 48 of the first 52 laps), came back to haunt him on the final yellow-flag stop. Harvick entered the pits with the lead but came out seventh and could not recover.
Sadler holds a 10-point series lead over teammate Austin Dillon, who finished fourth