By: Farrah Kaye
Danica Patrick’s first race at Talladega had an interesting start.
She strutted into the media center for her availability, wearing beads she received while on Talladega Boulevard, a traditional fan and driver favorite hangout while at the superspeedway. Not one to miss a sponsor plug, she told the media they would have to go to to godaddy.com to find out how she got them.
Patrick’s availability was different than usual, and not just because of the beads. It’s not common to have a Nationwide driver meet with the media every week, especially one that isn’t performing well. But this week, NASCAR invited along fellow female driver – and Talladega rookie – Johanna Long to talk about their first times at the track. However, there was one question on the minds of the media in the room.
It appears fans who don’t root for Patrick have started to root for Long, the 19 year old driver of the No. 70 for ML Motorsports Chevrolet.
“I guess you expect it because people like to root for different people, but I really don’t compare myself to anyone else,” Long said. “I’m just another driver out there in a 43-car field and just out there worrying about myself and my car.
“I try not to pay attention to it but it’s good to have new fans out there and I’m trying to grow my fan base just as everyone else (out) there (is) so I guess it’s a good thing.”
On the other side of the coin, Patrick appeared to have no knowledge of the fan situation or of Long.
“I suppose it’s one of those dynamics that happens,” she said. “I don’t know her. I do know that she is young. I don’t know what she has done before this but she’s doing a great job. She’s a really young girl and she just needs to keep at it.”
Thanks to rain, qualifying was washed out, leaving Patrick to start in 17th. They did, however, get in one practice, where she finished 12th.
“I think the car feels good. It’s definitely going to be a challenge to keep (the engine) cool with four inches less of an opening, so you have to come out even further to show the grill but I think it’s going to be an interesting race,” Patrick said. “You’ll see a lot more moving around, if that’s even possible, (than) Daytona.”
With Rick Carelli back spotting while TJ Majors looked after Dale Earnhardt Jr., the team overcame early radio problems and spent a good portion of the race in the top 10. On lap 76, Patrick led a lap after being pushed to the front by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., becoming only the second woman to lead a NASCAR lap at Talladega (Patty Moise was the first in 1995).
On lap 115, Patrick and Earnhardt Jr. began to draft and were almost taken out when Mike Wallace and Danny Efland crashed, bringing out the caution. There wasn’t much time to catch up, when “the big one” happened three laps later, bringing out the red flag and causing minor damage to the No. 7. After going back green, Patrick made contact with Sam Hornish Jr., who had a tire going down and crossed the start/finish line 13th.
Upset by the contact with Hornish, and thinking it was on purpose, Patrick wrecked Hornish during the “cool down lap,” putting him hard into the wall. Neither were called to the hauler after the race was over. Hornish apologized to Patrick and it appeared Patrick did not know about his tire situation.
Cup series regular Joey Logano took the win for the second time this year, leaving his drafting partner Kyle Busch (driving for his own team) to come in second, followed by Stenhouse, Cole Whitt and Earnhardt Jr. It was Toyota’s 200th win in NASCAR’s three national series.
With 30 laps to go, Timmy Hill was relieved by teammate Blake Koch, due to flu-like symptoms. Koch was on standby for the Sprint Cup race on Sunday.
But it was “the big one” that took everyone’s breath away. For more than 15 minutes, it was unclear what the status of Eric McClure was. Safety crews worked to remove McClure from his mangled car after he hit the safer barrier head on at full speed. It was finally relayed to NASCAR he was speaking and was extricated from the car via the cut roof and transported to a local hospital. It was later reported he was alert, speaking with his family and was being kept overnight for observation.
Next week, the series heads to Darlington, where Danica will pull double duty and make her first appearance in the Cup series since Daytona.
Farrah Kaye is a NASCAR columnist for CBS Local Sports and is a member of the NMPA. Her previous articles have appeared on SPEEDtv.com, newsweek.com and she holds a degree in Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Farrah_Kaye.