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Stock Car Racing A Three-Letter Word For Danica

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
Danica Patrick is having a good time down in Daytona. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Danica Patrick is having a good time down in Daytona. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Daytona Beach, Fla. – As the stock car learning process continues for Danica Patrick, the one word that keeps popping out of her mouth is “fun.’’

“I’m still having fun now,’’ Patrick said Thursday during a press conference in a packed Daytona International Speedway infield media center. “I’m still enjoying it a lot.’’

Why not? She finished a solid sixth in last Saturday’s ARCA race, her stock car debut. And, so far this week, she has stayed out of trouble on the track and moved steadily up the speed chart in preparation for her NASCAR Nationwide Series coming out party.

On Wednesday, she was 26th in the opening Nationwide practice. Thursday morning, she moved up to fifth.

As any racing fan who hasn’t been living in a cave knows by now, these are the first tenuous steps toward a possible full-time move to NASCAR somewhere down the road for the open-wheel glamour girl.

She recently signed a three-year contract extension with Andretti Autosports to continue driving full-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but team boss Michael Andretti agreed to let Patrick get her dainty toes a bit wet in the stock car sport.

She is running a handful of Nationwide races this season for JR Motorsports, beginning Saturday on Daytona’s 2.5-mile superspeedway oval.

If she thought that DanicaMania was rampant when she burst onto the national scene at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Patrick has been impressed by the maelstrom of attention her presence has caused thus far in the stock car world.

“Wow, there’s a lot more people here today,’’ the wide-eyed miss said as she glanced around the media center.

But she’s definitely not bowled over by the attention. She has been there before.

“I’ve been lucky to be in these situations,’’ Patrick said. “I think that played into what made me ready to go NASCAR racing. I know this is a bigger stage. I feel like I’ve really built up a lot of patience and tolerance and confidence along the way in IndyCar to be ready for everything, including this.’’

Thanks to all that experience with being in the spotlight, Patrick has been able to spend most of her time concentrating on learning how to be a stock car driver.

“I’ve been having a lot of fun,’’ she reiterated. “I am satisfied. Last weekend for the ARCA race, I was really happy with that run.  I was happy with the race. I did make some mistakes, for sure.  A couple of them I recovered from well. You know, that’s good. That shows me that I’ve learned some things, can handle these situations.

“But this is a whole ‘nother ball of wax this weekend.  This car is not as easy to drive.  There’s a lot of really great drivers out there, really great teams out there. Everybody is running close.  You know, everybody wants to make that next step up to Cup.

“This is a much different situation for me,’’ Patrick added. “So I’m glad to be out there because I really, really need the practice. My goal purely is to finish, just to finish the race, log 300 miles of practice.’’

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said Wednesday he was particularly happy that Patrick had been running with some of the Sprint Cup stars that also race in Nationwide. But Patrick said she’s not even sure who is who on the track.

“I’m very aware like what car they drive in Cup, but then they have different paint schemes for this race, driving different cars,’’ she said. “So when I rewatched the practice from yesterday, I was like, `Oh, yeah, I went by Carl Edwards. All right!’  Those are the victory moments.

“But, on the other hand, I was telling my husband, (on) some level, I don’t really want to know exactly who they are all the time out there because I don’t want to have this preconceptive idea that, `Whoa, it’s a Cup guy, be careful.’  I want to race ’em like I would race ’em.  I’m a fair driver.  I want to earn their respect.  It’s going to come from being myself out there and building up. ‘’

One writer asked Patrick if getting into the stock cars was an epiphany, like, “Wow, this is what I want to do.’’

“You know, I can’t deny that I really like driving the car,’’ she said, smiling broadly.  “I can’t deny that it’s really fun racing. … Originally, my big reason for wanting to come and drive stock cars was because I think the racing looks fun, and now I know it is.’’

“You know, I don’t doubt there are going to be hard days, just like in IndyCar, where you just want to park it.  You’re just saving your life every corner.  But, you know, all in all, these are really fun cars to drive.  I love the racing.  I love there’s passing, I love there’s side‑by‑side.  Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it’s fun for the fans, too, and they’re important.’’

But all of that doesn’t mean she’s ready to give up driving the small, agile IndyCars quite yet.

“I still very much enjoy IndyCar,’’ she said. “I haven’t been in the car but once since the end of last year, so it’s been quite some time.  But, I mean, there’s really nothing like the Indy 500IndyCars are very much performance cars,’’ she added. “They do what you ask when you ask it to.  These are a little bit bigger.  But the racing is very fun.  I haven’t made any decisions regarding which is my favorite or not.  It’s like having two kids:  I can’t pick.’’

Not yet.

Besides, they’re both fun.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
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