Danica Patrick knows about racing in the fast lane and in racing's spotlight. In her rookie year in the IndyCar Series (then the Indy Racing League), she finished fourth in open-wheel racing's premier U.S. event, the Indianapolis 500, and even held the lead late in that race. A week from now, the country's most popular female race driver, will make her debut in NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500.
The diminutive, feisty Patrick, who has become one of the biggest brands and marketing personalities in motor racing, if not across the entire sports spectrum, raced full-time in the IndyCar Series for the past seven seasons, makes the big transition this season to a full-time ride in NASCAR. Her gradual switchover to stock-car racing from open wheel began in 2010, when she drove a part-time schedule in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, with GoDaddy.com as her sponsor. She also participated on a part-time basis in the Nationwide Series last season.
Patrick started 13 Nationwide events in 2010 and ended the year 43rd in the points standings. She did better in 2011, although she competed in just 12 of the 33 race starts in the Nationwide Series. She did have a couple of top-ten finishes a year ago, which was one of her goals for the stock-car portion of her annual race schedule. Patrick came in fourth at Las Vegas Speedway in the GoDaddy.com No. 7 Chevrolet early in the year, and finished 10th at Daytona International Speedway in July in a race that she actually led for 13 laps. The fourth-place finish is the highest ever by a female driver in a NASCAR national event.
"She made tremendous progress last year," said veteran NASCAR driver Mark Martin, who is with Michael Waltrip Racing this year after several seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. "It showed how much talent she really has."
Patrick is scheduled to compete in all 33 Nationwide races in 2012 and also run in ten Sprint Cup events, beginning with next weekend's Daytona 500.
As expected, Patrick drew enormous attention from the media and racing fans as Speedweeks - known in motor-racing circles as the ten days at Daytona counting down to the NASCAR Daytona 500 and the start of a new season of stock-car racing - kicked off at venerable Daytona International Speedway. Patrick will run twice at Daytona next weekend, and as it turns out, the practice runs she is getting as one of the entrants in the Daytona 500 Sprint Cup race next Sunday could go a long way toward helping her cause in the Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide event the day before.
"There's very little Nationwide testing here," Patrick said during Speedweeks Media Day on Thursday. "I thought to myself, what a wonderful thing that I'm doing the Daytona 500, because, in my lack of experience, I didn't notice a difference between the two cars (the No. 7 car owned by JR Motorsports that she will race in the Nationwide season opener and the Stewart-Haas No. 10 Chevrolet she will be in for the Daytona 500).
"I didn't drive them back to back," she said, "but when I came and tested (the Daytona 500 car) a few weeks ago, it feels very similar to a Nationwide car. I think the Cup practice is going to be great for the Nationwide race, and I think the Nationwide race is going to help a lot for the next day for the Daytona 500."
Patrick's crew chief at JR Motorsports, Tony Eury, Jr., who used to be crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the Sprint Cup Series, would like his driver to get off to a fast start and good finishes in her first ten Nationwide races.
"Tony Jr. has told me the first ten races really set the stage and set the pace for the rest of the year, (and) the opener is very important," Patrick said. "It's always the same. If you can start the year off well, have great test results at the very beginning, it seems like you just hang up there."
Athough Patrick herself concedes that the odds are extremely long that she would win the Daytona 500 in her first attempt, she has supporters who are more optimistic. One of those who refuses to say she can't win is Stewart-Haas team co-owner Tony Stewart. "Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year?" Stewart questioned. "Anything can happen here. It's anybody's ballgame. Talent-wise, there's no doubt in my mind she got the ability to do it."
Patrick may have the ability and aggressiveness to win at Daytona, but to do so in back-to-back days of hard competitive racing and under the huge media spotlight that is indigenous to Daytona, is probably setting expectations way beyond reach.
Her debut in the Sprint Cup Series, however, in NASCAR's biggest race, makes for a great story line.
For more information:
More news and information on Danica Patrick
NASCAR official website
Daytona 500 race coverage