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Bobby Gerhart wins the ARCA 200, but Danica Patrick's solid performance was the big story

  Danica Patrick (7) recovered from this bruising ride to finish sixth in her stock car debut at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Danica Patrick made believers out of the skeptics with a surprisingly gutsy performance in her stock car debut, in Saturday's ARCA 200.
   She got knocked here and yon, but bounced back to finish sixth, behind winner Bobby Gerhart. "I'm glad she was here; she brought some well-needed attention to this series," Gerhart said after his sixth Daytona win. "Actually I didn't see her or talk to her all week...though I did see this huge group of media near my trailer...and thought they were coming to talk with me."
   In fact Patrick almost certainly would have finished much better, except that every time she made a move to pass, her rivals left her hung out to dry. And why a driver here wouldn't be willing to tuck in behind a Hendrick-powered car if that pull was available is certainly a question some crew chiefs may be asking their drivers.
   Now the question is will she run in next weekend's NASCAR Nationwide 300. Well, that, and does that SI Swimsuit issue come out Tuesday, and what are her Super Bowl ads going to look like?
    She has said she would make a decision by Monday on the 300, and appeared leaning toward skipping that one and instead making her official NASCAR debut in the Nationwide race the following weekend in the tour's Los Angeles stop.
   However as impressive as she was – in handling the typical ARCA bumps and grinds – and as well as she rallied down the stretch, it would seem likely she could get the okay to run again here.
    "You done good," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. told her after the race, which ran from 4:30 p.m. till nearly 7, finishing under the lights in the cool Florida evening.

   So, is that balaclava from Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And Patrick herself seemed thrilled at the adventure: "It was good at the beginning. We were just hanging out, because there were a lot of yellows. 
   "And then it seemed like the car started sliding around a lot. It felt like one point I got hit in (turns) one and two, and slid up the track. (That put her back in the draft for a while.) And I was a little loose in the kink (trioval) anyway....which probably could have been from some bumping from behind (bump-drafting) too.
   "I just couldn't hang on (to the draft) and got shuffled back.
   "I tried to get back in (line)....and then I tried to take a run that we were getting to the inside (to pass, on lap 54 of the 80-lapper; they said you can't cross the yellow line (out of bounds) to improve your position, but they were all slowing down. And then the guy on the outside came down over the front of me, but I just held to the yellow line – and took myself out unfortunately."
   That was a moment of high drama: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtXm5jO2E0Y Patrick was on the inside of a three-wide in the heart of the trioval and she got knocked into the infield grass by Nelson Piquet Jr., the Formula One racer.
   Her car veered back out on the asphalt, but she didn't get hit and she kept the car off the outside wall, then veering down across the infield grass again.
   That save was one of the highlights of the race.
   For a moment she was depressed about that turn of events. "But then I said 'Shoot, we're not out of it,'" she said.
    "My guys in the pits did a good job of fixing it in the pits, so the tires didn't blow out from something rubbing.
   "I was pretty excited to go from last back to the top-five again."
   That was with about 15 laps to go. But each time from then on that Patrick made a move to pass, she got no help.
   "I jumped up high (to make a passing move to the outside), with about eight to go, and said 'What the heck. Let's see who goes with me," Patrick said.
   "The car felt pretty good, and that was fun. I was going side-by-side with people. The car doesn't look very pretty, but that was fun."

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   ARCA drivers race hard and wild at Daytona, which makes Danica Patrick's day-and-night debut all the more impressive (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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