"I should have been paying attention to my pit road lights and should have got off pit road better," he said. "I made a mistake at the end and it cost us a chance to stay out in front of the 24."
Patrick had her best run of the season, spending most of the race nestled inside the top 10, and brought a needed jolt of electricity when she passed teammate Tony Stewart and Earnhardt to move into third with 95 laps left.
Patrick hadn't finished better this season than 14th at Fontana and her lone top-10 in the Cup series was an eighth-place finish in the 2013 Daytona 500.
She was shuffled back on a restart, costing her a top five.
Patrick beamed in the garage after the kind of finish she'd been striving for since her dazzling performance at Daytona more than a year ago.
Crew chief Tony Gibson told her, "Chicks rule, huh?"
"I know that we haven't had the best of times, but we work hard for it," Patrick said. "This is the kind of stuff that materializes in wins. We've just got to keep hanging around and doing what we're doing. I'm just proud of everyone for working really hard and believing in me."
Sara Christian's fifth-place finish in a 1949 race remains the best for a female driver in NASCAR's top series.
Jamie McMurray and David Gilliland both had their cars erupt in flames in separate accidents. Gilliland was slow to exit his No. 38 Ford and gingerly walked away from the smoldering wreckage. He was checked out and released from the infield care center.
"It was the hardest hit I've had in a long time," he said.
McMurray had a solid run derailed when he smacked the wall and the back of his No. 1 Chevrolet caught fire.
"I heard a small pop, and then just lost all the steering and got into the fence," he said.