Danica Patrick

(credit: Farrah Kaye/CBS Local Sports)

By: Farrah Kaye

The last time Danica Patrick was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, she was in an IndyCar, making her final appearance as a series regular. In what should have been a great day, she watched as her friend Dan Wheldon died when a horrible wreck occurred on the track.

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As the NASCAR Nationwide Series came to Las Vegas, some wondered if the events of that day would impact her racing.

“In my mind, she’s been a stock car driver for a while now. She certainly was here in October when the tragedy happened,” said Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson. “It’s definitely a tough thing to overcome and I’ve been through it before with other friends that I’ve lost in motorsports. You try to push it out of your mind. You try not to think about it. It’s easier for us as stock car drivers to come to this track and certainly we know what has happened and some of us were close with Dan (Wheldon) and it tugs on us emotionally. I’m sure it’s hard on Danica coming back.”

If she was able to push the emotions aside, expectations were high. Her best finish was at this track last year – fourth. After two disappointing finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, Patrick took it upon herself to change her expectations for the season.

“I gave myself some false expectations about running this year for the championship and probably using those words. It’s really my first full year,” Patrick said. “I think I need to remind myself every now and again where my expectation level should be and I can’t let the exposure and hype and hope to do well – I can’t let that be something that makes me feel like I have to do well.”

As for team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., he didn’t have any expectations for Patrick coming in to the weekend other than what she wanted for herself.

“I’m sure she’ll be disappointed with anything less than a top-five finish this weekend,” he said.

But Patrick didn’t get that top five. In fact, she only cracked the top 10 for a short while and mainly stayed in the teens. She went as high as ninth and as low as 23rd after starting 12th. Over the radio, she frustratingly spoke about her pit stops not going well, saying she was not used to her pit crew running at her.

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Patrick finished 12th, the same position she started in, 19.899 seconds behind the leader and on the lead lap. She said it was a solid day but they didn’t accomplish their goal.

“The goal was a top 10. The result didn’t show how I felt in the car,” Patrick said. “It was a solid day, I was trying.”

Patrick added she needed to manage her restarts better and she wasn’t able to vary her lines much.

“It was not a groundbreaking day, but it was better than last week.”

Noteworthy events in the race include the caution on lap 27, when Kyle Busch took a spin on the backstretch, causing severe damage to his car. He would eventually return to the track and finish 73 laps down in 33rd place.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the checkered flag, his first victory not at Iowa (he swept Iowa in 2011).

So far in 2012, all races have been won by non-Cup drivers (James Buescher is going for the Truck series championship, while Sadler and Stenhouse are Nationwide regulars).

The series heads to Bristol next, where Patrick finished 33rd last year, 45 laps down after an accident. She currently sits 15th in points, 69 points behind leader Elliott Sadler

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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.