Danica Patrick still has some learning to do.
The former Indy Car star has transitioned to stock cars on a full-time basis this season, running the complete NASCAR Nationwide Series championship schedule, in addition to a challenging, part-time effort on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Like most rookies, her results have been mixed, with solid finishes on larger tracks and less-encouraging results at the shorter venues.
Saturday was a good day for Patrick. She ran in the lead draft throughout the Aaron’s 312 at Talladega Superspeedway, and was in contention for the win until being shuffled out of the draft on a late-race restart. Contact with fellow Indy Car alum Sam Hornish, Jr., compounded the agony, leaving Patrick’s GoDaddy.com Chevrolet a disappointing 13th at the drop of the checkered flag.
After the race, Patrick hit Hornish from behind on the cool down lap, turning him nearly head-on into the wall and triggering a post-race dustup between the two former open wheel stars.
“I’m mad to get wrecked after the race,” said a seething Hornish afterward. “I had a right-front tire go down coming off Turn 4 from earlier contact. (Joe Nemechek) and I got together and it started slowly going down. Coming to the tri-oval… I couldn’t turn and couldn’t keep it down.
“I was doing everything I could do (to avoid Patrick)," he said. "I was trying to wave off Elliott Sadler, to get him to quit pushing me. I couldn't hold it down, and I ended up getting in the wall before we got to the start-finish line."
Hornish confronted Patrick after the race, expressing unhappiness with being wrecked after checkered flag “while we were still going 160 mph.” He gave his version of the animated, post-race conversation with Patrick, saying she accused him of intentionally blocking her on the restart. “She said, 'Oh, I know your style,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm going to drive into the tri-oval wall way before the start-finish line to prove (my) point.'
“I don’t know,” said Hornish. “She's got her head a little bit mixed up about what's going on out there, I guess."
“I’ve known Sam for a really long time,” countered Patrick, “and I know what to be ready for around him. I don’t know what happened… (and) I don’t know (if it was personal). He apologized, so I suppose it wasn’t.”
She also expressed frustration at being left out of the draft in the final laps, saying, “I have to get my arms wrapped around some more friends out there, so I can have more people want to work with me and go to the front. I've got a fast car.”
Patrick’s frustration is understandable. Unfortunately, it is also unrealistic.
No matter how hard she tries, Patrick cannot simply stamp her feet and demand the instantaneous respect of her fellow competitors. At tracks like Daytona and Talladega, she must prove – over and over again -- that she is a stable, trustworthy, levelheaded performer in the draft. Incidents like Saturday’s do little to further that effort.
Like it or not, she must accept that in NASCAR, contact is part of the game. This is not the IZOD Indy Car Series, where open wheels and minimal bodywork make even the slightest contact a potentially deadly situation. Fenders get creased in NASCAR, and while not every incidence of car-to-car contact rises to the level of attempted murder, intentionally sticking someone in the fence at 160 mph – especially after the checkered flag – is no way to make friends.
In Indy Car, Patrick was rightfully viewed as a veteran. In NASCAR, she has not yet earned that status. While possessing unquestionable talent behind the wheel, she is also developing a reputation as a finger-pointer; a driver who consistently calls-out fellow competitors while accepting little or no measure of blame for her own on-track incidents. If she really wants to be accepted in the NASCAR garage, she needs to talk less and listen more, lowering the volume and avoiding the urge to tell drivers with exponentially more experience how to do their jobs.