Nationwide Series: Danica’s Back

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Danica Patrick is the face on the billboards promoting this weekend’s racing at the Dover International Speedway in Delaware, known as the Monster Mile. She is rapidly becoming the most famous race car driver in the United States but the reality is that in six starts in the NASCAR Nationwide Series she has managed just four finishes with a highest placing of 24th, two laps down on the winner.

How strange that with Dover being the second track in The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship they didn’t think to use a picture of one of the championship contenders but instead went for a driver who is struggling to learn their craft in a lower division? It wouldn’t be because that driver is female – and feminine – and also happens to be very pretty, would it? You can see Dover’s dilemma, though; do they promote one of the fancied drivers at a time when crowds and television audiences are dwindling or do they go with the personable and attractive lady who is very likely to put bums on seats?

If Patrick gets sucked into the media and personality side of her life she runs the risk of becoming motor racing’s equivalent of Anna Kournikova, someone who never fulfilled the promise their talent showed and instead became famous for being famous. If you’ve seen Danica in the GoDaddy commercials you can see she is certainly at ease in front of the camera and that together with her modelling assignments could lessen her focus on her day job and that would be a shame.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t cite Patrick’s less than spectacular results in her Nationwide races as a criticism of her abilities. She threw herself in at the very deep end, starting at Daytona – a race which ended with her early retirement in an accident not of her making, and has been trying to adapt to the needs of Stock Car racing making sporadic appearances whilst running a full IndyCar programme. Possibly trying to combine both is the reason that her 2010 season in the single seater category has been less than stellar too, although she finished a creditable 5th at Motegi, Japan last weekend.

Motegi was the site of one of Danica Patrick’s finest achievements when she became the first, and so far only, woman to win an IndyCar race. And it is worth remembering that in her rookie season, 2005, she qualified 4th for the Indianapolis 500, ran in the lead of the race for a while and finished in her starting position of 4th to beat the previous highest result by a female driver at Indy, the 9th place of Janet Guthrie in 1978. On May 24th 2009 Patrick raised the bar again with a third place finish which stands as the best result for a female driver in the Indy 500.

Clearly she is a very capable and talented racing driver and is capable of more than her results this year show. Maybe it is trying to combine the two series that is working against her. When she set up the programme to drive the GoDaddy #7 Chevrolet for JR Motorpsorts she asked what her boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was expecting of her and was told hopefully a top fifteen finish. By her own admission she thought to herself, “Is that all they want of me? A top fifteen?” And equally by her own admission she now realises she seriously underestimated the enormity of  achieving that result. Stock Car racing has been a steep learning curve for her and she knows she has a long way to climb yet.

After Saturday’s Nationwide race at Dover, Patrick returns to IndyCars for the season finale at Homestead, Miami,  and then will devote herself to six straight races back in the Nationwide Series. Her target remains that top fifteen finish and also to finish on the same lap as the race leader. It would be a huge achievement if she could manage it and you cannot rule against it if she puts the effort into learning what it takes to get the best out of a Nationwide car and has a bit of luck on her side.

To that end Danica was entered in Friday’s K&N Pro Series East race, known as the Sunoco 150, at Dover driving again for JR Motorsports. Her crew chief for the race was to be the same man who guides her through the Nationwide races, Tony Eury Jr. On Thursday she took part in two practice sessions for this, her first visit to the Monster Mile and its concrete track, driving the Pro Series East car, giving herself valuable track time and then on Friday qualified the East Series Chevrolet in 13th place, about mid way in the field, before practicing the Nationwide #7 car, ending practice in a creditable 12th place out of 48 cars. Most of the eleven drivers faster than her were Sprint Cup drivers, including Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

Patrick then finished the day by racing in the Sunoco 150 race and finished a very respectable 6th behind several of the championship contenders including champion for the second year, Ryan Truex, brother of Sprint Cup driver, Martin Truex Jr. She led the race a couple of times when her pitstop sequence was different to the rest of the field and after her last stop joined them in 15th place and then clawed her way back into the top ten. Not one, but two green-white-checker finishes taught her a lot that will help her in the Nationwide race.

“I know I learned a lot for [the Nationwide] race, and that was the point for sure,” Patrick said after the 155-lap East race. “I learned a lot, especially about restarts. I learned about closing rates.”

“I learned how to set people up here and I learned about the timing of everything. … I didn't have a back blower and the helmet blower seemed to be blowing hot air. I was pretty ***** hot.”

Danica Patrick has adapted remarkably quickly to a track that many drivers never fully get to grips with. If she can maintain that form on Saturday for qualifying and then the Dover 200 Nationwide race maybe she could, if not make that top fifteen finish, at least break into the top twenty. That, I should think, would be a more than satisfactory weekend for her.

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Kevin is the latest addition to the TCF team specialising in NASCAR.
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