DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Here’s something to consider: Maybe Danica Patrick is a pretty good race car driver. The Scottsdale resident certainly has her detractors, the ones who have dismissed her as nothing more than a well-marketed, attractive female who has tallied all of one victory in five seasons of IndyCar racing.
So she of course was written off long before she ever climbed into a stock car with the intention of giving NASCAR a spin.
Her critics rolled their eyes at her intentions.
And rightfully so. Dario Franchitti couldn’t cut it, and Sam Hornish Jr. is still struggling three years after his move. With five IndyCar titles and two Indianapolis 500 wins between them, Franchitti and Hornish have far more accomplished resumés than Patrick.
So what would make anyone think Patrick would do any better?
Well, she did.
Patrick bumped and banged her way through the crash-filled ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway, where she successfully dodged one of the sloppiest events in recent memory. She pulled off a masterful save on a slide through the infield grass, fell to the back of the field, and still managed to drive her way to a sixth-place finish.
So it came as no surprise that after taking a day to catch her breath, Patrick decided she should indeed make her NASCAR debut this weekend in the second-tier Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
She’d been previously praised for declaring Daytona not the right place to make her NASCAR debut, but after holding her own in the ARCA race, everyone anticipated the about-face that came Monday.
“Racing in the Nationwide Series race was my goal during this entire two-month preparation process, but we wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do,” she said. “The ARCA race was a blast, and I’m not ready for my first Daytona Speedweeks to end just yet. I want more racing.”
She’ll get it, too. Saturday’s race is a big boy race, with more than half the field expected to be Sprint Cup Series stars.
They’ve won nine of the last 10 Nationwide races at Daytona, dating back to 2005 when Martin Truex Jr. won it in a JR Motorsports car.
Kelley Earnhardt, general manager and part owner of JRM, doesn’t think Patrick will take the team back to Victory Lane on Saturday.
But she doesn’t think she’ll stink up the show, either.
“My dream scenario is she would be up there in the top five competing for the win,” Earnhardt said Monday. “My reasonable expectation is that she just finishes, and brings the car home and maybe gets a top 15. From a car owner standpoint, she showed Saturday that she can make good decisions and not put other cars in jeopardy.
“Now, going forward, if something catastrophic happens this Saturday, you’ve still got last week to look back on and say 'We came out of that OK.’ I think that takes some of the pressure off and allows her to go into her first NASCAR race not worried about her debut.”
Regardless of how she performs, Patrick is guaranteed to have an immense spotlight on her the rest of the week.
She’s been the central figure of Speedweeks since her arrival Thursday, and has been constantly swarmed by media and fans everytime she steps into the garage. Her participation brought a whole new level of interest to the typically overlooked ARCA Series, and will undoubtedly do the same for NASCAR at a time when the auto racing series is looking at anyway possible to re-ignite fan interest.
Earnhardt has seen circus-like celebrity before, first with her father, the late Dale Earnhardt, and again with brother Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And even though Dale Jr. is annually named NASCAR’s most popular driver, it’s been quite some time since his big sister has seen such intense interest at the track.
“I’ve been in situations with both of them that have seemed very chaotic, but with Danica, it seemed like there were always at least 200 people swamping her,” Earnhardt said. “I was really in awe, because I haven’t seen something like that in our sport for awhile. You see a crowd moving through the garage, and you know that Dale (Jr.) is coming, but with Danica, this was definitely different.”
It’s only going to get bigger from here, Earnhardt anticipated. Saturday’s race is the first of 13 she’s scheduled to run this season in a slate she will intertwine with the IndyCar Series and another run at an Indianapolis 500 victory.
“She’s done really well with the attention, and I think she’s had a level of this already,” Earnhardt said. “But if she’s successful here, it’s going to be double or triple the attention on our side because our fan base is so much larger and so loyal.”