DARLINGTON, S.C. -- As the leaders battled for the checkered flag in the Bojangles' Southern 500 Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Danica Patrick continued her race to 2013.
For Patrick, Saturday was a 368-lap practice session and tutorial on the art of Sprint Cup racing as she prepares to go full-time in the Cup Series next season. Make that 362 laps -- she was six behind the leaders and finished 31st when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag.
-- DANICA PATRICK
But that was largely irrelevant. Darlington is perhaps the toughest race track on the circuit and no one expected Patrick, who had never raced a lap here before Friday's Nationwide Series event, to challenge anyone but herself. That she was six laps back was mostly meaningless as well. She made it to the end without crashing, learned how to race this track and made her 2013 return here much easier than it would have been if she hadn't gone through a grueling two days.
"My goals were to run respectable and felt like that happened, at times even passing and having decent speed, and to finish,'' Patrick said. "We did both of those things so I think it was overall a really successful weekend at a track that could have been a disaster. This is a step in the right direction. I finally can thank Tony [Stewart] for putting this one on the schedule."
Patrick became only the third woman to compete in a Cup race at Darlington following Janet Guthrie, who finished 16th in 1977, and Shawna Robinson, who was 42nd in 2002.
Patrick had nixed the Stewart-Haas Racing plan to begin her Cup career with this race, because the task was too daunting. She opened with the Daytona 500 instead. This was only her second Cup race. But in truth, she had a better weekend at Darlington than Daytona, where she was collected in a wreck on the second lap and wound up 64 laps behind the leaders.
"I'm ecstatic with the results,'' Stewart said. "Don't know where she finished. Don't know how many laps down it was. She ran good lap times [Saturday night]. There was a period of the race where she said her balance was at her best, she was within a tenth of the leaders at that point in the race.
"This is a long weekend. What she did in these two days is hard to do."
Patrick finished 12th and on the lead lap in the Nationwide Series race Friday night. But the Cup race was going to be much more difficult. Patrick had struggled in her first practice, posting the worst time among all drivers, and qualified 38th for the race. She was concerned enough going into the race that she had an extended conversation with Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, before the driver's meeting Saturday afternoon.
"She said she underestimated how big of a challenge this race track would be,'' Johnson said. "Chad and I were going through a couple things on the flow of the race. She was a little bit concerned about getting off the pace, how to handle that."
Indeed, Patrick was off the pace quickly and went a lap down after 29 laps. She continued to drift back from there in a race that saw all but 14 cars off a lap or more by the midway point (21 wound up on the lead lap at the end).
There were mistakes along the way -- Patrick hit a cone on entry to pit road late in the race. She was assessed a pass-through penalty that would have been a whole lot more costly if she was actually competing for places on the track. But Saturday night was never about racing the other 42 cars. It was about experiencing the nuances of this egg-shaped oval. That's what spotter Tab Boyd told her repeatedly.
"Just race the track,'' Boyd said, and when he sensed she wanted to do more, "I know. There'll come a time."
Patrick is running the full Nationwide Series schedule this season and 10 Cup races as well. Daytona and Darlington now behind her, with No. 3 on the horizon. Patrick will now face NASCAR's longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600, at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 27.
"It's really good to do a nice long race at a challenging track where it's about car control and feeling things out because the Coke 600 is going to be a big weekend,'' she said. "Double-duty again and obviously on a really high profile weekend. So it'll be nice to have gotten one like this out of the way and then we just tack on another 100 miles and were there."
It will be yet another lesson for Patrick as she slowly gets up to speed in NASCAR without the pressure of having to compete in Cup races this year with the focus squarely on 2013. That's when Patrick will be expected to be more competitive at places like Darlington.
Six laps back won't do the next time she's here.
"Am I going to be contending for a top 10?'' she said, "I don't know about that. But I think that running up there where I've got people on my lap and running for positions, obviously that's the hope for the next time we come back and that's why we came this time." Watch all the highlights from Darlington: Related: Caraviello: Patrick gets wall-to-wall course at Darlington Danica duels with Darlington Patrick added to Coca-Cola family in style