Patrick preps for Daytona today
By Chris Jenkins
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick's preparation for her NASCAR debut in today's Nationwide series race at Daytona International Speedway is a little like a football player getting ready for a big game.
She's studying film and getting coached up.
Patrick watched replays of last year's race, noting trends and tendencies. Based on what she has seen, her car could be even more of a handful in the race than it was in practice.
"I did some in-car camera and race footage from last year," Patrick said. "I watched the first bit of the race (Thursday) morning. I'm in the garage telling the guys, 'Everyone went loose last year, everyone went loose last year. Please, I'm already loose!' "
Patrick's talent, confidence and preparation have helped her make a good first impression at Daytona this week, earning respect from some in the NASCAR garage who weren't sure she'd be able to make a smooth transition from IndyCar — although a few dissenting drivers have complained about the cascade of media attention she's drawing.
In addition to watching video, Patrick has sought advice from some of the sport's top drivers and crew chiefs. Beyond Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who is a co-owner of the family racing team, JR Motorsports, that Patrick is driving for — she also has talked to Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief.
"Guys have been extremely generous," Patrick said. "I don't plan on wasting that or taking that for granted."
Patrick's stock car racing debut came last Saturday in the ARCA race at Daytona, where she rallied from a spinout to finish sixth. Based on that run, she and the team decided she was ready to try the Nationwide race at Daytona.
"I can honestly say, just by watching what she did in IndyCar, I knew she had a lot of talent," said 1999 Cup series champion Dale Jarrett, now an analyst for ESPN. "I wasn't sure she could come here and mix it up. I was wrong. She did a great job the other night. But now it's on to some more intense testing."
Going from ARCA to Nationwide is a significant step up — like going from high school to college football, according to Jarrett. But Patrick is setting modest expectations, talking about finishing the race, avoiding trouble on the track and learning as much as she can.
And while she knows she's bound to have bad days during her partial Nationwide schedule this season — she'll continue to race full time in IndyCar — she keeps using the same word to describe her experience in NASCAR: fun.
"All in all, these are really fun cars to drive," Patrick said. "I love the racing. I love there's passing, I love there's side-by-side (racing). Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it's fun for the fans, too, and they're important."
Patrick's move to NASCAR has revved up interest, something most drivers say they welcome.
"I'm glad she's here and (for) the fans she's bringing in," Johnson said. "The thing that is going to be tough for her, she doesn't even get out of the car to get a bottle of Gatorade without a camera on her. So at some point, that stuff is going to be aggravating. As long as she's used to it and ready for it, she's going to do a good job with it."
But in a sport where media exposure directly affects a driver's value to sponsors, some competitors have vented frustration about the attention Patrick is receiving.
Scott Speed posted a note on his Twitter feed saying that the media seems to consider Patrick the best driver since Dale Earnhardt Sr. and is "also related to Jesus." Regan Smith used his Twitter account to suggest that ESPN should dedicate one channel to Patrick and another, lower-profile channel to the rest of the drivers.
ESPN officials say they're trying to strike a balance between feeding casual fans who might tune in to watch Patrick and hard-core fans who might be turned off by too much coverage of one driver.
Patrick says she can't control what's being said or written about her. She says she's in NASCAR to race and learn, not to overshadow other drivers.
"That's not my mission, is to be the big story," she said.
And Patrick isn't going away after Daytona. She's scheduled to drive a total of 13 races for JR Motorsports this season, including the next two races at California and Las Vegas, and hasn't ruled out a full-time move from IndyCar to NASCAR down the road.