Patrick, straddling both IndyCar and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has been trying to gain seat time and experience in her No. 7 GoDaddy JR Motorsports stock car. She was especially looking forward to racing for the first time at the track in the Valley of the Sun, a home game for her.
“I remember at Charlotte last month everyone was thrilled to be racing close to home,” Patrick said prior to the race. “Now I get my turn for a hometown race.”
While Patrick has raced her IndyCar at Phoenix, the Wypall 200 served as her stock car debut at her home track.
“It’s a place I thought was cool in an Indy Car, and I’m sure it will be a handful in a stock car,” Patrick said. “It’s challenging, and I’m sure it will be even more so in a stock car with less grip.”
Patrick’s words proved prophetic as the race was full of challenges for her. She started the race in the 28th position and remained in that position, logging laps as she familiarized herself with the track.
Patrick made little progress forward, however, and that is how her trouble began. At least twice, she had close contact with other race cars back in the pack, once with Tony Raines which resulted in a tire problem, and another time with Alex Kennedy, against whom she later took retaliatory action.
Her troubles intensified when she lost control and hit the wall hard, sending her to the attention of her pit crew for repairs. Patrick, who had set a goal of finishing in the top 15 prior to the race, finished 32nd, seven laps down to race winner Carl Edwards.
In stark contrast to Patrick’s much heralded and intensely scrutinized Phoenix Nationwide start, Cole Whitt and his Red Bull Racing team took to the track, both making their Nationwide debuts. Whitt, who is just 19 years old, has raced primarily in the K&N Pro Series, where he finished fourth in the point standings and runner up for rookie of the year honors for the 2010 season.
“It’s going to be fun and cool to see how we stack up against some of the bigger guys,” Whitt said prior to the race. “I have all the confidence in the world in my team, my cars and everything that we are putting together, so I have no doubt that we will go out there and run good.”
“I approach every race in attack mode,” Whitt said. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure we are as fast as we can be.”
Although Witt had never raced Phoenix in a Nationwide car, he has had experience at Phoenix International Raceway. Whitt raced twice in USAC midgets, winning the USAC Silver Crown portion of the 2009 Copper World Classic for his first victory on pavement.
Prior to the race, Whitt also got some coaching from Red Bull Racing’s Cup stars, Brian Vickers and Scott Speed. Vickers particularly cautioned the youngster to “pick his battles wisely.”
Both Vickers and Speed urged their rookie driver to understand the fine balance between standing your ground against the veterans, while also not letting them push you around.
“You don’t want to make enemies on your first day,” Vickers told Whitt prior to the race. “The veterans can make your life miserable.”
For his Nationwide debut at PIR, Whitt, behind the wheel of the No. 84 Red Bull car, had to qualify his way into the race with no owner’s points available. He not only made the show, starting in the 21st position, but also turned heads by being the fastest car in Nationwide happy hour practice at 130.496 mph.
For his part, Whitt heeded all of his teammates’ advice. He kept his nose clean, stayed out of trouble, and brought the car home for a top-15 finish.
“I’ve got to thank Red Bull, Toyota and everybody that came together to make this thing happen,” Whitt said after the race. “We really didn’t mess up a whole lot. I think it was a track position race and we just couldn’t quite get up front where we needed to be.”
“Everything went good,” Whitt continued. “We came out here to prove ourselves and I think we did pretty decent. We came out for a top-15 and that’s what we had.”
For Whitt and Patrick, the tale of the two Phoenix Nationwide rookies could not have played out more differently. While Patrick struggled, beating and banging to finish laps down, Whitt managed to move ahead, keeping his nose clean and achieving that top-15 finish that has eluded Patrick throughout her Nationwide season.
The other tale of these two Phoenix Nationwide rookies, however, is even more divergent. Patrick will finish up her Nationwide rookie season at Homestead and is set to race again next year, while Whitt’s plans for the future remain uncertain.