DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Let’s make one thing clear: Danica Patrick is no Daytona debutante.
Sure, the most recognized and marketed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie ever to hit the track here will make her maiden run in the 54th Daytona 500 a week from today, but it’s not as if Patrick hasn’t been here before.
The 29-year-old former IndyCar Series driver from Roscoe, Ill., has been around the block a few times.
Before her lone open-wheel victory came in a 2008 race at Motegi, Japan, Patrick’s claim to fame was that she was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, doing so in her 2005 rookie tour of the fabled Brickyard, where she earned Rookie of the Year honors after finishing fourth and leading 19 laps.
So when she makes her Sprint Cup debut in the No. 10 Chevrolet jointly fielded by Tommy Baldwin Racing and the Stewart-Haas Racing team owned by reigning NASCAR champion Tony Stewart - for whom she expects to compete full-time in 2013 - Patrick won’t be paralyzed by nerves.
She’ll enjoy a certain comfort level, having already dealt with suffocating media attention during her initial arrival at Daytona two years ago and, more important, having local knowledge from numerous tours of Daytona’s high-banked superspeedway.
Still, there remain questions, such as the one posed by NASCAR’s own television ad touting Patrick’s Daytona 500 debut: “Will she prove she can run with the big boys without having to be one?’’
Stewart, one of those “big boys’’ of the sport, believes the 5-foot-2-inch, 100-pound powerhouse has the heft to hold her own in her limited Sprint Cup run this season. To that end, Stewart will expose Patrick to what he called “an aggressive and ambitious’’ schedule that begins at Daytona and includes races at challenging venues such as Darlington (S.C.) Raceway May 12, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway Aug. 25, Atlanta Motor Speedway Sept. 2, Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 16, Texas Motor Speedway Nov. 4, and Phoenix International Raceway Nov. 11.
“The great thing is that in the short amount of time that we did get to work with her here, she processes information so fast, it’s much quicker than any other rookie that I have seen,’’ Stewart said. “Her feedback is really good and detailed. You can’t teach that, that is a talent that you have to have. Nobody can teach you to have that amount of feedback and feel for a car.
“There is no doubt in my mind that she is going to be good in these, it is just a matter of how long is it going to take for her to really get super comfortable in these cars.’’
Attracting a crowd
“I feel good,’’ Patrick said, as she held court for a throng of reporters last Thursday at NASCAR’s media day. “I think that if I had not experienced all the media crazy around this whole part of things, it would have been somewhat overwhelming or maybe at least I would have felt like there’s a lot to do - and there is - but once you’ve had a little practice at it, you know how it works.
“My whole team knows how it works and how to organize everything so it’s done effectively and efficiently, so I feel good. Let’s not forget I’ve been exposed to the Indy 500, which is one of the biggest races in the world if not the biggest race in the world and there’s lots of media around that, too, and lots of hype like this for an extended period of time.
“But, you know, it’s definitely good to have had the experience I had in Nationwide part-time leading to a full-time year.’’
She twice raced in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car enduro, in 2006 and 2009, before making her much-anticipated stock car debut here two years ago in the ARCA Racing Series opener with JR Motorsports, a team owned by NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. She posted such an impressive result - sixth place after starting 12th - that it prompted her to accelerate her plans for her debut in her limited Nationwide Series campaign to the following week’s opener at Daytona.
It was no small feat, considering Patrick’s accumulated race experience in a stock car at Daytona amounted to just 80 laps - in an ARCA car, no less.
Undaunted, she qualified 15th-fastest for her Nationwide Series debut at Daytona, but her run in the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 came to an abrupt halt when she was collected in a multi-car crash on the front stretch of the trioval that ended her day in 35th place after completing 69 of 120 laps.
Even in that calamitous moment, when she deftly maneuvered her spinning car through the grassy area, she proved she was capable of handling herself behind the wheel of a snarling, 3,500-pound beast of a stock car.
It was a jarring experience in comparison to the approach she took in finessing a 1,600-pound, open-wheeled Indy car around the track. That is not unlike piloting a rocket ship. Stock cars are more like tanks with fenders.
“What’s surprised me is just how much I truly enjoy driving these cars,’’ said Patrick, whose career started out on an open-wheel trajectory when she was discovered by 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal in 2002. Two years later, she found herself at the epicenter of a month-long media maelstrom - “DanicaMania’’ - when she made her Indy 500 debut.
“That sounds super cheesy, I’m sure,’’ Patrick said. “You probably all think I’m lying, but I never thought I would like driving these cars as much as I do.’’
Tough crossover move
Now that she has successfully navigated an important crossroad in her career, completing a two-year experiment of running a part-time Nationwide Series schedule and a full-time IndyCar campaign, Patrick is fully engaged in NASCAR.
She will run a full-time, 34-race Nationwide schedule for JR Motorsports in combination with a 10-race Sprint Cup Series schedule, sharing seat time in the No. 10 Chevrolet sponsored by GoDaddy.com with David Reutimann.
Although she will attempt to make a run at the pole position in today’s Daytona 500 time trials, Patrick will be guaranteed a starting spot in the race by virtue of the points Dave Blaney accrued for Tommy Baldwin Racing last season in the No. 36 car, finishing 33d out of the exempted top 35 in the owners’ points.
“I’m definitely going to hope that David has good races and that he finishes well or finishes,’’ said Patrick, whose exempt status will depend on her and Reutimann keeping their car among the top 35 in the owners’ points. “I think that’s always a hope when it’s a car that you’re going to be running and points that you’re going to be sharing. I’m sure the other is quite true as well; he’s going to hope when I get in the car that I do OK as well.’’
NASCAR has seen its fair share of flameouts by open-wheel aspirants looking to make a lane change to the Sprint Cup circuit. Success stories such as Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Juan Pablo Montoya, are the exception rather than the rule.
Sam Hornish Jr., winner of 19 races in 116 IndyCar starts, including the 2006 Indy 500, knows the pains of making such a failed conversion. He defected from the IndyCar circuit in 2008 to drive a Sprint Cup car for Penske Racing, only to find himself out of the game last season after going winless in 109 starts.
“I feel like I had a lot of success, and when I came over here, I felt like if I didn’t have that same kind of success that people were going to doubt me and what I was capable of,’’ said Hornish, who will compete against Patrick for a Nationwide Series championship this season. “I pushed myself a lot harder than what I should have.
“She’s got the sponsorship around her that she’s going to be able to do this for a long time, so she just needs to be smart about how she goes out there. You don’t have to do big things right away.
“You just have to go out there and learn, finish races.’’
‘Anything can happen’
While Stewart has not placed any unrealistic expectations upon Patrick in her inaugural season in Sprint Cup, he does not intend to take it easy on her.
“We tried to pick tracks that we figured might be a little more challenging, a little more difficult, knowing that the whole goal this year is just to gain her experience,’’ Stewart said. “So that when she does come out in 2013, she is ready to go. And we have tried to give her the best opportunity to have a successful season and not go through that whole first year of growing pains and trying to learn these tougher tracks.’’
That begins with Daytona, where Janet Guthrie still holds the record for the best start (18th, 1980) and finish (12th, 1977) by a woman in the Daytona 500.
But when it comes to Patrick, the expectations will be greater. Everyone will be wondering the same thing: “Can she win?’’
“Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year?’’ asked Stewart, referring to the improbable victory of the 20-year-old rookie phenom from Knoxville, Tenn., who took the Wood Brothers’ famous No. 21 Ford back to Victory Lane for the first time since 1976 in just his second career Cup start.
“Anything can happen here, it’s anybody’s ballgame,’’ Stewart said. “She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her [she finished 10th].
“I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car [draft]. Talent, there is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it.’’