Kasey Kahne gets set to practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 auto race, Friday, March 23, 2012, in Fontana, Calif. (AP Photo/Autostock, Russell LaBounty)
FONTANA, Calif. -- Danica Patrick got nothing to celebrate on the eve of her 30th birthday.
Patrick dropped out with engine failure near the midway point of the Nationwide race at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday, finishing 35th in another disappointing result during her first full season in the series.
Patrick's car picked up debris in the front grill at some point early in the race, apparently puncturing her radiator. The JR Motorsports Chevrolet eventually seized, and Patrick was left disappointed.
"That's just what happened," Patrick said in the garage. "It's not a Chevy issue. It's not a team issue. It's just a bad luck issue, and unfortunately, I feel like we've been catching a fair amount of it at the beginning of the season."
Patrick hasn't finished higher than 12th in five Nationwide races this season, taking a step back from her promising results last season when she ran a part-time NASCAR schedule and a full IndyCar slate.
She crashed in the Nationwide race in Daytona after winning the pole before getting caught up in a large wreck involving Jimmie Johnson in the season-opening NASCAR race, her Sprint Cup Series debut. She also wrecked in a qualifying race the previous Thursday.
Patrick then finished 21st in Phoenix and a solid 12th in Las Vegas, but managed only 19th at Bristol last week. She still was 12th in the Nationwide standings heading to Fontana.
"It would have been nice to do well here in California," Patrick said. "I always feel like there's lots of people that come out to enjoy the race and to cheer me on, so I feel their love, but for one reason or another, our day got cut short here."
Patrick's season is far from a disaster, but it's a step back from a year ago, when Patrick finished in the top 15 six times in 12 Nationwide races, catapulted by a strong start including a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas.
"What are you going to do, though?" Patrick asked. "You just go on the next one, and the good news about NASCAR is there's a lot of races."
On the brink?
Kasey Kahne isn't the only notable driver whose car is in danger of losing its automatic spot in the NASCAR field.
Casey Mears is just above Kahne at 33rd place in owner points, while the No. 10 car driven by David Reutimann and Patrick is in 36th, four points behind Landon Cassill's Toyota.
Only the top 35 after this weekend's race at Auto Club Speedway don't have to sweat qualifying to make sure they're racing on Sundays.
Kahne is one more wreck away from falling below the line, but he thinks Auto Club Speedway is an ideal spot to get his season back on track.
"I like this place," Kahne said. "We've ran here well a lot of times. It's really wide, so you can always find a racing groove. If our car's not working and good on the bottom, you can move to the second lane or the third. There's so many lanes here, it's such a wide track, so you may get spread out at times, but you can find stuff and look around. I actually enjoy these types of race tracks."
See the mouse
Nationwide driver Tayler Malsam just turned 23 last month, and his off-week plans are fitting for a guy with his baby face: He's going to Disneyland.
"My sister lives down here in San Diego, so I'll hang out with her all week," said Malsam, a former driver for Randy Moss Motorsports. "I'm just a huge Disney fan, so I'm going to be out here spending as much time as I can with all those characters."
Malsam finished 16th on Saturday.