Retraining the Focus
Popular IZOD IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick is testing the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) waters this season by competing in 13 races with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s JR Motorsports (JRM) team.
Patrick's "four-fender" move was motivated by a desire to test her talents in the stock car ranks after she engineered a career-best fifth-place IndyCar Series championship showing in 2009 by collecting five top-five and a total of 10 top-10 finishes.
While working out the details of a two-year contract containing an option year with Andretti Autosport that began this season, the six-year IndyCar Series veteran who earned a 2008 victory at Twin Ring Motegi Japan and owns a total of two top-five along with five top-10 Indianapolis 500 finishes, was simultaneously exploring NASCAR opportunities.
"It's come up in the past to run NASCAR and my heart wasn't there. I didn't want to at all. I've always thought the most important thing for me in my career is that I go with my gut; go with what I want and not worry.
"I love Indy car racing and my team. I'm curious about NASCAR, but curious didn't mean I wanted to jump in with both feet. I think that when you have wheel-to-wheel racing all day, it's challenging. I think the racing looks fun," she said prior to this season.
The opportunity to satisfy her blossoming NASCAR curiosity may have come courtesy of the motorsports marketing bridge built by consumer Internet service provider GoDaddy.com, which sponsors her No. 7 Indy car and additionally supports JRM's No. 7 Nationwide Series team. Just eight days after announcing her IndyCar Series contract and with the blessing of team owner Michael Andretti, Patrick joined JRM co-owner Kelley Earnhardt at a news conference to reveal the 2010 Nationwide Series plan.
So far, the dual-series season has brought Patrick an expected and welcome set of new challenges.
"Everything in the IndyCar Series is very opposite with the way it works in NASCAR. In NASCAR, I'm a fish out of water. The people are different, the language is completely different. Everything from what you do in the car to how you speak about the car is different. It's a big learning curve. I'm just trying to figure it out, just trying to finish a race, so that's all different, too," she said.
She averaged a 31st-place start and finish in seven Nationwide Series events this season while completing a respectable 923 of a possible 1,200 laps. She placed a season-best 24th at Chicagoland Speedway near her Roscoe, Ill., hometown on July 9 and took 35th in her most recent series start at Dover International Speedway Sept. 25
She banked a 10th-place IZOD IndyCar Series championship finish this season with three top-five and a total of eight top-10 finishes, including a season-best tying second-place finish in the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 2, and can now solely focus on honing her stock car racing skills through the final six races on the NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule.
Auto Club Speedway is the only track in that stretch at which she's competed in a stock car and she'll return there Oct. 9. She started 36th and finished 31st in her second career series start during her first visit to the track this season on Feb. 20.
"Every time I think I'm going to do well I don't do well. Every time I'm not sure what to expect, I do well. It's just kind of gone like that this year. Michigan (a 27th-place finish) was a prime example, I thought we were running well and we were just loose and it didn't go great.
"It's hurry with patience with the stock cars. You have to drive them hard, but if you cross that line, sometimes the front or the rear gets away from you and doesn't come back. That's the balance that's hard to achieve - driving it in (the corner) as hard as you need to, but not so hard that the car gets away from you," she said.
Despite a lack of spectacular results, her effort has been praised by veteran NASCAR Crew Chief Tony Eury, Jr., and the transition from controlling a 650-horsepower, 1,500-pound open-wheel machine to a 750-horsepower, 3,400-pound stock car has been eased by advice from Sprint Cup regulars Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Elliott Sadler.
With experienced help readily available, Patrick is committed to working the learning curve with a goal-oriented approach.
"In a situation with something so new it's important to just set some goals and not just drive to drive.
"I'm very frustrated with the way that it has gone in NASCAR and I'm harder on myself than anybody else could be, probably. There have been some good things, but it has been hard and really humbling. I thought it was going to be a little bit easier than this.
"I don't know what I need out of the car to be good in the race. I know what I want for one lap to feel good, but that doesn't mean it's going to be good for 70 or 80 laps.
"There are lessons learned and they're not fun lessons. Everybody's watching and it makes it even harder, but we'll get this car to the front by the end of the year and we'll figure it out," she said.
Auto Club Speedway race coverage is set to begin at 4:00 p.m. on ESPN2, Motor Racing Network radio and Sirius XM 128.
Story by Mike Schmaltz