On Lap 481 of Sunday's STP Gas Booster at Martinsville Speedway, Danica Patrick found herself in an unexpected position—battling Tony Stewart, her car owner and a threetime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, for the 16th position.
Stewart was hung on the outside, losing spots as cars at the bottom of the track passed him in quick succession. Patrick, however, said she didn't give a moment's consideration to giving Stewart enough room to move to the inside lane.
"We were racing for position, so it didn't cross my mind to let him in," said Patrick, who finished 12th as the top entry for Stewart-Haas Racing. "I went underneath him to go by him. No, all that crossed my mind is that I just ... I'd be fair and give room and run hard, and if I get the spot, great.
"If I don't, you lost it to a guy like Tony Stewart. But, no, I'm out there to race, and I don't think Tony would want me to lift."
Making her first Martinsville start as the only woman ever to compete at the .526-mile short track in NASCAR's highest classification, Patrick posted her best Cup finish since running eighth in this year's Daytona 500 and her career-best result at an open-motor track.
After the bell
The fireworks at Martinsville didn't end with the checkered flag.
Brian Vickers, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick were racing hard for 11th, 12th and 13th off the final corner, and there was no dearth of contact between their cars.
Ultimately, Vickers got to the stripe first, followed by Patrick and Harvick. As the cars sped toward Turn 1 after the checkers, Harvick gave Vickers Toyota a shot and sent it spinning. The accident left Vickers mystified.
"We hadn't really raced that much all day, and then he (Harvick) just wrecked us after the checkered flag," Vickers said. "It was blatant, pretty blatant — he just turned right into us. The 10 (Patrick) and I were racing pretty hard. I got to her and got under her several times, and she ran me down in the marbles, ran me across the curb, was blocking pretty bad. So I put the bumper to her a little bit.
"If you're going to block, if you're going to run me across the curb, then you have to get the same in return. We raced hard all day, and we raced clean with a lot of people. I would say I did the same with Danica. I didn't try to wreck her, (but) if you're going to run me through the marbles, then what am I going to do?"
Mark Martin wasn't impressed with his own performance, but, after starting 35th, he still managed to post a top 10 subbing for four-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin, who is sidelined with a compression fracture in his first lumbar vertebra.
Martin fought the handling of his No. 11 Toyota Camry, losing a lap at one point, but he rallied for a 10th-place finish, good enough for a two-position gain to ninth in owner points. Through a miscommunication on pit road, Martin also left his stall before the left-front tire was mounted during a stop on Lap 256, but his drive over the final 200 laps made up for the mistake.
"It wasn't a great result—we were capable of a little bit better, but we just kept stumping our toe on Friday (during practice and qualifying), and then we had a setback when we were about to get into position," said Martin, who will return to his regular ride in the No. 55 Camry for Michael Waltrip Racing next weekend at Texas.
"I did not fill Denny's shoes, I can tell you that much. He is the master. (But) I enjoyed this opportunity. It was fun."
Substitute driver Vickers can empathize with Denny Hamlin
In picking Brian Vickers to substitute for Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing got a driver who can empathize with what Hamlin is feeling while he waits to return to his car.
Vickers will start a stint of indeterminate length in the No. 11 Toyota next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, as Hamlin continues to recover from a compression fracture of the first lumbar vertebra suffered during a last-lap crash Mar. 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Make no mistake. Driving the No. 11 Camry is an important opportunity for Vickers, who is running a nine-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, including Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
But Vickers has mixed feelings about the circumstances that will put him behind the wheel of Hamlin's car. Much of Vickers' ambivalence stems from a medical condition that forced him out of his ride at Red Bull Racing in 2011. Suffering from blood clots in his legs and lungs, Vickers missed the last six months of the season while he recuperated.
"Next week I'm going to be in the 11 car, which I'm obviously excited about, but sad how the opportunity came about," Vickers said Friday morning at Martinsville. "I know what it's like to be pulled out of your car for health reasons -- I've been in that boat before and wish Denny a speedy recovery.
"I'll do the best job I can for him and (sponsor) FedEx and everyone at Gibbs and Toyota until he returns ... Again, I reiterate it's very sad how it happened because I've been on the receiving end of this. I'm happy to jump in and do the best I can."
Hamlin is expected to miss five races, but that number is inexact, pending the speed of his recovery and a green light from his doctors.
Elliott Sadler will drive a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing car in three NASCAR Sprint Cup races under sponsorship from Alert Energy Caffeine Gum, the team announced Friday. Sadler will be behind the wheel of the No. 81 Toyota Camry at Kansas (Apr. 21) and at both Talladega races (May 5 and Oct. 20).