Danica hoping to finish what she starts
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
FONTANA, Calif. — The difficult part for Danica Patrick is still not knowing for sure how things are "supposed to feel" in a stock car and what is normal on the track.
"I really don't have any of those answers at this point," Patrick said yesterday. "It's only going to come from, in my experience, really having something good to go, 'Oh yes, I want that again. I know I can achieve it.' It just takes time."
Patrick gets another chance this weekend at California, in what originally was supposed to be her NASCAR Nationwide debut before she raced at Daytona and got caught up in a 12-car accident just past the halfway mark last Saturday. She went a week earlier than planned after finishing sixth in the ARCA race at Daytona.
Her goals today are simple: finish laps — and the race.
"Finishing is definitely always the goal," she said. "I just need laps. ... I'm probably going to be more surprised how I'm going to have to deal with the car sliding around for a majority of the run, and I need that to be a normal expectation for me that I deal with."
Unlike Daytona, Patrick goes to the two-mile California superspeedway already with some race experience on the large oval. But that was five years ago in the IndyCar Series, and is really no comparison to the way she will have to drive this time.
"It's definitely a departure from being in an IndyCar here when you're glued to that white line," she said. "You never came off the white line any way, and you never lifted."
Patrick ran 16 laps in the opening session yesterday and her best lap of 169.591 mph was 37th. She improved to 27th in the second session with a lap of 171.310 mph when she ran a field-high 35 laps.
"For me, really I don't feel necessarily so bothered by tracks as much as I do just getting comfortable with the car on the track. That's the most important thing for me," she said. "I've driven around here flat-out on the white line before, I have no problem with that."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the co-owner of the JR Motorsports team that is fielding cars for Patrick on a part-time basis in the Nationwide Series, said Patrick "did as well as she could at Daytona under the circumstances" and that the team plans to be patient with her continued development.
"We have a lot of responsibility in giving her a good opportunity and she has a lot of races to learn and understand these cars," Earnhardt said.
After more than a dozen Sprint Cup drivers appeared in the media room yesterday, Patrick came in after her final Nationwide practice. The room was more crowded than it had been all day, with more cameras and more reporters.
Cup driver Tony Stewart said Sprint drivers don't feel that too much attention is paid to Patrick.
"Our opinion about her hasn't changed. I still think she has an extremely high amount of talent. I think that if the media will give her enough room to learn and not bug the daylights out of her where she can't breathe, I think she'll be fine," Stewart said.
Patrick said other drivers have been "very, very open" and helpful but that it is still her responsibility to earn their respect on the track.
"I haven't really had enough racing out there to know whether or not they're playing nice and fair and whatever, and I don't even, to be honest, know. Is bumping wrong?" she said. "I think I saw Jamie (McMurray) win the race last week and have people bump him afterward. So I think it was some sort of a 'good job.' Is that like a pat on the butt in football or something? I don't know. ... I'm not sure, so I don't think I know what's normal yet."