Talladega Superspeedway has long been more than just a stop on the NASCAR carnival circuit, it's been the scene of some of the sport's more sublime moments. Champion Bobby Isaac heeded the apparent warnings of spectral voices and parked his car while leading a race in 1973. Campground revelry underneath the pine-laced hills is epic. And there is the oppressive vibe, borne of the desolation of the place and the sense of impending mayhem whenever cars ply the high-banked, high-speed asphalt of the monstrous track.
Danica Patrick immersed herself in the shabby chic of the rural Alabama spectacle in her first visit to the superspeedway this weekend, conducting a media session wearing a set of outlandish beads, suggestive of the ones that serve as currency for adult revelry on the rollicking Talladega Boulevard. She immersed herself in the draft-dependent style of racing required at the 2.66-mile superspeedway after showing an aptitude for it at sister track Daytona International Speedway. And by the end of the Nationwide race on Saturday she, like Isaac and many others before and since, seemed to have been momentarily possessed by it.
After finishing 13th, likely unsatisfying and not indicative of how well she competed most of the race, Patrick wrecked old friend/former house guest and fellow IndyCar alum Sam Hornish Jr. on the cooldown lap.
NASCAR took no immediate action. Patrick restarted 18th on a second attempt at a green/white checker finish and worked her way to 10th beginning on the final lap before Elliott Sadler -- with whom she had been involved in an earlier incident -- and Kenny Wallace opted to work together and leave her without a draft partner and plummeting back through the running order. Patrick regained a spot in line and rallied but was audibly agitated, responding to a question over team radio if she was "all right" with, "Absolutely fine. ... I don't know. It seems like people don't frickin' like me, man."
"I thought [Sadler] was going to run with me, because we were back there," she told reporters. "I drug the brake and waited up for him a little bit, and when I went to go high with him, he went around me, so I slowed down for nothing. Then again at the end, there was another opportunity to work with him at the end and we didn't, so I don't know. He probably was just on a different program. Might have been looking for somebody else."
Early in the cooldown lap, when cars slow before returning to pit road, Patrick had run alongside Sadler and Hornish, who were nose-to-tail, when it appeared Hornish veered wide right, nearly blocking her into the wall. Patrick subsequently chased Hornish down and used her bumper to turn him into the wall.
Hornish said after the race he veered because of a tire problem.
"I went over and said, 'Hey, we had the right front tire that went down, and I don't appreciate getting turned after the race was over,'" Hornish told USA Today. "She said, 'Oh, I know your style.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, because I'm going to drive into the tri-oval wall way before the start-finish line to prove any kind of point.'
"I don't know. She's got her head a little bit mixed up about what's going on out there, I guess."
Patrick said Hornish apologized.
The surreal finish marred what had otherwise been one of Patrick's strongest races in her first full Nationwide season, and further validation of her ability on tracks where she could draw on her IndyCar experience of full-throttle pack management. The variable, albeit a crucial one, at Daytona and Talladega, is utilizing and exploiting draft partners. Whereas Patrick was able to team with various drivers during the race -- including teammate/owner/restrictor plate savant Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- she lost valuable track position multiple times when she needed to nose the No. 7 Chevrolet out of the draft line to provide a rush of air to the radiator and cool her overheating engine. Communicating with potential drafters remains a work in progress also. Patrick is unable to utilize a common signal for beckoning drivers into a drafting position because her hands do not reach through the window netting.
And as a series neophyte, even a high-profile one, she was at times cast aside when her foes chose more experienced options. That proved costly for Patrick after the final restart.
Patrick had improved from her starting spot of 17th to fourth by Lap 40, but five laps later had slumped to 13th when her water temperature elevated to 260 degrees, forcing her to break the nose-to-tail draft and expose her grille to more oncoming air. By Lap 70, though, she had joined a breakaway four-car pod to run third, and with 40 laps remaining she took the lead for a lap. All three of the laps Patrick has led this season have come at Daytona and Talladega.
Quickly engulfed by more experienced plate racers, Patrick maintained a spot in the top 10 and was beginning to discuss strategies, including how late she could wait for a last-lap attempt for the checkered flag. She began a restart with 30 laps to go in third place and helped push leader Kevin Harvick, but twice lost considerable position cooling the car, dropping to 18th with 12 laps remaining. That loss put her in position to be collected by Sadler and ruined any chance of finishing inside the top five after she required a pit stop for new tires and fender repair.
Patrick had been critical of both Sadler and Hornish at haughtier moments of the race and was side-swiped by Sadler during a Lap 116 accident when he veered sharply to avoid the sliding car of Harvick. Earlier, as she assessed potential collaborators before a restart, she said working with Hornish -- whom she identified by driver custom by his car number -- would be "a risk" because "he goes into some silly spots."
The last one she apparently found especially silly. Perhaps it was just Talladega's fault.