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NASCAR Braces For Another Bout Of Danicamania

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010

Danica Patrick heads back to stock cars and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. this weekend in New Hampshire. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Here we go again. It’s time for Danica Patrick’s return to her stock car apprenticeship after spending four months in her full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The open-wheel glamour queen precipitated a major case of DanicaMania at the beginning of the season when she finished sixth in an ARCA race, her first stock car event, and followed with three well-publicized NASCAR Nationwide races.

It was no surprise to most observers that she found a steep learning curve in her JR Motorsports stock car, finishing no better than 31st in the trio of races in NASCAR’s second-tier series.

The buzz died down when Patrick went back to her Andretti Autosport entry in the open-wheel series. And it became a bare hum when she got off to a miserable start in IndyCar. But a sixth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500, followed by finishes of second and 10th at Texas and Iowa, has buoyed Patrick and perked up interest again.

Longtime NASCAR crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who will again work with Patrick this week as she takes part in the New England 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, says Patrick is making all the right moves.

“When she’s driving her IndyCar, that’s where her head is,’’ Eury said. “When she’s driving the stock car, she’s all here. She’s like a sponge soaking up everything around her. I think she’s going to do just fine.’’

The New Hampshire event is the first of 10 more Nationwide events she is to run this season in the No. 7 Chevrolet, including the final six races – after the IndyCar season is over.

For the track in Loudon, N.H., Patrick’s participation is a huge ticket-selling bonus. Whether she’s running up front or mid-pack, the diminutive miss is a major attraction. Some people love her, some hate her, but everybody seems to want to see her in or out of a race car.

Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of NHMS, practically drools with anticipation when he talks about Patrick.

He traveled to the JR Motorsports race shop in Mooresville, N.C., before the season to woo Patrick with an 8-pound lobster and the promise of a pair of very expensive Jimmy Choo high heels. Obviously, the blandishments worked.

And Gappens is very glad they did, pointing out that ticket sales for Saturday’s event are up more than 30 percent over last year’s Danica-less Nationwide event.

“All eyes will be on Danica this weekend,’’ he said. “From her off-track persona to her on-track performance, she’ll command the attention of fans and industry insiders alike. I just wish she was running Sunday, too.’’

Patrick is used to the craziness that generally surrounds her at the racetracks and she was pretty successful at keeping her wits about her despite the circus atmosphere at the early-season stock car races.

“It’s all car racing,’’ she said in May at Indianapolis. “I try to concentrate on the race I’m running and the car I’m running and get the most out of the weekend. That doesn’t change, whether I’m in an IndyCar or a stock car.

“It’s going to be my first time at New Hampshire, though. And that’s kind of exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing the track that I’ve heard so much about, and I think I’m kind of happy I haven’t been there. I don’t have any preconceived notions about the place.’’

Ironically, it appears Patrick’s first appearance at the Granite State track will also coincide with the announcement that the IndyCar Series will return NHMS in July 2011 after an absence of 12 years.

Patrick has two more years to go on her contract with the Andretti team and also is contracted through 2011 to run the part-time Nationwide schedule for the team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And, who knows, there may even be a Sprint Cup start mixed in there somewhere. In any case, the fans in New Hampshire are going to get their share of DanicaMania, beginning this week.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010