DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Bobby Gerhart held yet another trophy.
Danica Patrick held her own.
Gerhart’s record sixth ARCA victory at Daytona International Speedway was overshadowed by the successful stock car debut of the IndyCar star, who rallied from a midrace spinout to finish sixth Saturday in the crash-filled race.
“It was a lot of fun,” Patrick said. “I bumped from the side. I bumped from the front. I got bumped from the back. I learned a lot, and I had so much fun in a race car today. So I can’t wait to do it again.”
Patrick’s first foray into stock car racing was widely anticipated, and she didn’t disappoint.
After spending much of the race among the top 10, she bumped fenders with Nelson Piquet Jr. and spun out through the infield grass on lap 54, costing her any realistic hopes of a victory. But she charged through the field in the closing laps, getting as high as fifth with three laps left.
It impressed Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sister Kelley, who was instrumental in putting together the deal that brought Patrick to the family’s JR Motorsports team.
“I think she showed us she was able to drive,” Kelley Earnhardt said. “One time I saw her up on the high side, she pulled down low. I kept thinking, ‘Come on, let’s up pull off an Earnhardt. Pass 18 cars in three laps and win this thing.”’
But she didn’t have enough to catch Gerhart, who has won the ARCA season opener six of the last 12 years.
“As a little kid, I dreamed of having an opportunity to come here and race,” Gerhart said. “When that happens, naturally comes the passion to come out and win, but I couldn’t imagine doing it this many times.”
Mark Thompson was second, followed by John Wes Townley, James Buescher and Patrick Sheltra.
Gerhart, who said he hadn’t yet met Patrick, understood his name probably wouldn’t end up in the headlines.
“Overshadowed by what? Did I miss something?” Gerhart deadpanned. “I’m glad she was here, really. It brought some very, very well-needed attention to this series.”
Patrick will race a partial schedule in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide series this season. She has not yet decided if she will compete in the Nationwide opener at Daytona next Saturday.
“I’m really just thinking about today, what I learned and what I can do better,” Patrick said.
Her car owners seemed pleased. Earnhardt Jr. sprinted from the NASCAR drivers meeting to congratulate her, while Rick Hendrick— who owns a stake in JR Motorsports—was quick to praise her over the in-car radio.
“You drove the wheels off that thing, girl,” Hendrick told her. “We are proud of you.”
Patrick replied, “Thank you very much.”
The Daytona ARCA race is notorious for its frequent and spectacular crashes—“You need to wear a helmet if you watch it from the stands,” driver Scott Speed said earlier in the week— and this year’s race was no exception.
The car carnage started early, when Bill Baird’s car got wildly loose on lap 7 and collided with Steve Blackburn, resulting in an eight-car pileup. The race restarted 10 laps later—and the field couldn’t even get through a full lap without another wreck.
Dakoda Armstrong’s car spun out and was hit hard by Craig Goess, bringing the race to a halt again. Patrick artfully swerved high to avoid the wreck.
Another female driver in the field, Jill George, walked away safely after her car overturned in a frightening accident on lap 27. The race was red flagged in the aftermath of the accident as track safety workers repaired a fence.
Patrick learned about drafting at Daytona the hard way on lap 49, when she moved out of the low groove and lost touch with the leaders, slipping from sixth to 11th.
She noted over her in-car radio that the car was beginning to get loose and slide around on the track—and things were about to get much worse.
On lap 54, Piquet Jr. tapped fenders with Patrick on the frontstretch, spinning Patrick into the infield grass.
“Grass is not good for grip,” Patrick recalled thinking as her car was sliding.
She made an impressive save, managing to keep her car from sliding into the wall. Patrick was able to get back in the race but slipped to 24th.
The most frightening wreck of the day came a few laps later, when Barry Fitzgerald’s car went tumbling wildly in the infield grass next to the backstretch. The car flipped seven times before coming to a stop, but Fitzgerald was able to climb out of the car.
Patrick’s performance is likely to overshadow the wrecks and Gerhart’s win, but Gerhart said he didn’t mind.
“I actually welcome the opportunity to have a national platform to compete at,” Gerhart said. “Hopefully when somebody talks about this series now, they’re not going to say, ‘You do what?”’