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Harris: Danica Learns Hard Lessons

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
Danica Patrick and her team attracted a crowd on pit road Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Danica Patrick and her team attracted a crowd on pit road Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Danica Patrick seems to have as many detractors as fans, and her NASCAR debut in Saturday’s Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race gave both plenty of fodder.

On the minus side, the diminutive IndyCar glamour girl quickly slid from her 15th-place starting position and eventually lost the lead draft. On her second pit stop, she stalled the engine in her No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, costing valuable track position that wound up putting her in the wrong place at the wrong time – right in the middle of a 12-car crash on the 68th of 120 laps at Daytona International Speedway.

The venom and cackling glee that spewed from some of the tweeters and bloggers was amazing.

But, c’mon haters, she did some good things, too.

Patrick held her ground and didn’t panic when several cars crashed in front of her earlier in the race, driving unscathed through the smoke, spinning cars and flying debris.

“I don’t know how I didn’t (crash), but I didn’t,’’ she told crew chief Tony Eury Jr. on the radio.

Eury’s reply: “There’s gonna be more.’’

The longtime crew chief of Dale Earnhardt Jr., his cousin, talked calmly to Patrick throughout the race, using several long caution periods to teach his new pupil.

“You have to hustle the car out there,’’ he told Patrick at one point early in the race. “You get a car-length behind a car going into the corner, you have to keep that distance.’’

“Yes sir,’’ she replied.

After messing up the second pit stop of her NASCAR career, Patrick liked the feel of her car a whole lot more. She was not only keeping up with the pack, but passing cars. Patrick regained her lost lap earlier when she was the first car a lap down on a caution and looked like she was finding a groove as she drove all the way up to 21st.

That’s when Josh Wise and Colin Braun got together in heavy traffic and ignited a huge crash. This one, Patrick couldn’t avoid.

“Cars came together and there was smoke,’’ she said after driving her battered car to the garage. “I just kind of let off the throttle and slowed down and I slid down the track. Then there was more smoke and I can’t see anything again and I tried to slow down and go to the corner, and that time we all hit.’’

She almost made it through a second time, but glanced off a spinning car and drove hard into the outside wall, crushing the right front of her car and tearing up the suspension.

“That’s the tough thing about this racing,’’ Patrick said. “It’s what they’ve said all along about these big tracks, smoke comes up and you’re running so close out there that there’s nowhere to go. But the disappointing part, more than anything, is that I missed out on getting 40 or whatever laps of experience, and the car was finally where I liked it and I felt confident as a driver to run in the pack. So I was finally getting the hang of it.

“I can tell that I’ll be a lot more confident and prepared for next year (at Daytona). This is some difficult racing, it really is. The cars are definitely on the edge here and, as you can see, someone gets a little bit out of shape and everybody’s on top of each other and then, since the car doesn’t slow down very well, you’re already on the edge and everything happens.’’

Ever since it was announced that Patrick would do some part-time NASCAR racing, the stock car world has been all Danica all the time.

She has been the center of attention since coming to Daytona last week and making her stock car debut with a solid 6th-place finish in an ARCA race. She even made a great save in that race after being bumped into the grass.

Patrick also held her own in Nationwide practice and the speculation about what would happen Saturday just kept growing. TV and certain members of the print media could not get enough of her, which infuriated the people who either think she’s getting too much attention or that she’s only getting this opportunity because of her looks and marketing appeal.

And there’s no question her presence has created something new and big for NASCAR.

The  scene in the garage after she crashed was incredible, with hordes of photographers and writers vying for position to hear what Patrick had to say about her coming out party.

None of the craziness around her seemed to affect Patrick, though. She walked away from her abortive NASCAR debut with a positive attitude that is likely to carry on to her next stock car race, next Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

“I’m glad I got that second stint in to get more confidence out there,’’ she said, smiling. “But it’s never fun when you crash up a perfectly good car and it wasn’t your fault.

“It’s important to have realistic expections,” she said. “There are going to be spikes in performance, and there are going to be tough days. This day was a more tough day. That just proves how hard it is out here and how hard it is to learn.

“I think we would have finished strong if we would have finished – which was my goal – but as you can see, it’s easier said than done.”

Among those whom Patrick impressed was race-winner Tony Stewart.

“She got a lot of laps in today,” Stewart said. “That’s what needed to happen. It would have been a disaster if she’d have got taken out on the second lap and didn’t get a chance to learn anything.

“She got a chance to feel a bad car. That’s probably more valuable to her than anything. Just getting the experience in the car, learning what changes to make, how it makes the car react, that’s what this week was all about. It wasn’t about where she is going to finish. This week was a learning week, plain and simple.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
One Comment

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  • Glen Harness says:

    Call me a hater or whatever, but what I really hate is the excess press coverage she’s getting. She’s, at best, a mediocre Indy Car driver, and is getting about 100 times the press that Dario Franchitti, a multi-race winner and, now, two time Indy Car champion got when he went NASCAR racing.

    Face it: the only reason she’s getting this much press is because of her good looks.