Ingram's Flat Spot On
Patrick Takes Next Leap
by Jonathan Ingram
In her apprenticeship aboard stock cars, Danica Patrick's next step will be considerably more difficult. Moving from an ARCA Series race at Daytona to a 300-mile NASCAR Nationwide Series race means she'll be driving a different car against a far deeper field of talent.
While it might be fair to compare Patrick's results in Saturday's race to the other three drivers who will step up from ARCA to the Nationwide Series, she'll be judged by how well she runs against the likes of Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and her car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I would not be surprised to see Patrick make it to the finish, but I would be surprised to see her in the Top Ten at the checkers. The bottom ten in the Nationwide race are more talented than the Top Ten in the ARCA event.
Patrick spent much of the ARCA race holding position in the low groove. It's possible she had the best car in the field -- which showed when she swept from 24th to fifth on fresh tires at the finish. But she concentrated on gaining seat time, perhaps the better part of wisdom.
Three times Patrick had unwanted contact -- and recovered each time. She creased a rear quarter panel dodging one wreck, got bounced into the tri-oval grass by Nelson Piquet Jr. and banged doors on the final lap with Ricky Carmichael en route from seventh to sixth place.
During the post-race scrum with the media throng, Patrick was asked if there were there were any surprises.
"The car does get pretty loose when you get hit," she said. "It can. That's alright. I always tried to make sure if I hit someone it was in a straight line. I didn't do it too much, only if I was doing a little bit of bump drafting, trying to get going. Everything surprised me a little bit. But nothing was crazy. I think that's why I had fun."
In the Nationwide practice on Wednesday, where she was 26th fastest among 51 drivers, Patrick was a bit more adventurous but remained committed to holding steady in traffic. At one point she lifted in the tri-oval to avoid overtaking another competitor, which forced the trailing Kyle Busch to hastily take evasive action.
"I kept the car in one piece and I ran out there with some big guys," said Patrick after her post-practice debrief. "That was good and I played it pretty safe." Because of car owner JR Motorsports' guaranteed entry, she needn't worry about qualifying her way into the field.
If I've had one consistent criticism of Patrick's driving over the years, it has concerned a hesitancy to mix it up in the draft in Indy cars. That was again evident during the ARCA race, when Patrick tended to hang back instead of tucking in closely in the draft. It was hardly surprising she didn't have any takers when she jumped to the high groove at the finish in an attempt to gain positions.
Driving the shorter wheelbase Nationwide cars, the challenge of drafting with the series veterans and Sprint Cup regulars will be considerably more difficult, acknowledged Patrick after her first practice.
"There's certain things I'm going to have to tolerate with this car," she said, "because it's just the kind of car it is. The ARCA car is very planted and comfortable out there. This car is going to move around more. So I'm not sure how much I have to put up with. I need to learn what that is all about."
Some of that learning came with a visit by her car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. during practice. "It's nice to have that kind of help around," she said.
The pit strategy of Crew Chief Tony Eury Jr., which left Patrick on worn Hoosiers to gain track position in the ARCA race, will be interesting. (In a series with so many inexperienced drivers, that was a smart decision to keep Patrick among the front runners.) Will Eury Jr. do his best to keep Patrick on fresh Goodyears this time around?
I have confidence in Patrick's ability in the long run. She's been able to race at the front in whatever kind of car she's driven over the years -- including a Busch Series Ford during a test after she first returned from finishing second in the Formula Ford Festival in Britain as a teenager. She's always been smart, focused and fast behind the wheel.
Is there something about Patrick that will distinguish her from other open-wheel drivers who have had trouble making the transition to NASCAR from IndyCar? Perhaps the biggest difference for Patrick is the ability to take a step-by-step approach to the learning curve. That's something that was not afforded former Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who jumped straight into the Sprint Cup.
That option comes, of course, because Patrick brings major sponsorship due to her unique appeal, which bumped the TV ratings for the ARCA race by nearly 60 percent. She can afford to work her way up with a structured program as a part-time NASCAR driver. There's no doubt Saturday's race will indeed be a lot of work for her.
Oh, yes. Look for Patrick to be practicing for the Daytona 500 at this time next year in a JR Motorsports entry.
Note: Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.