Energetic Danica adds spice to NASCAR with strong Daytona debut
Danica Patrick exhibited her typical gusto and aggressiveness in the race
Bobby Gehart (6th Daytona win) didn't mind being upstaged by Patrick
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick's Daytona debut is over, culminating with an impressive sixth-place finish in the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 ARCA race. Here are five things we learned from the experience.
1. Danica can really race. For those who doubt that Patrick is a real driver, she showed them Saturday what she's capable of doing in a stock car. After starting 12th, she drove a smart race in the beginning before making forward progress. She ran as high as 5th on lap 30 after a lengthy red-flag stoppage, but when she went three-wide on lap 53 with Nelson Piquet, Jr. in the middle, she got punted across the infield grass and fell back to 24th place.
"We came out of [turn] four and people were checking up and slowing down," Patrick said, "so I went to the inside and [Piquet] was dropping back and [he] got into the inside line. I was there and held my line because I couldn't go below the yellow line. "I could either back out and give it up, or wuss out, or I could keep my foot into it. So I just did what they told us in the driver's meeting."
What she did after that showed she has true potential in this form of racing. When the green flag waved with 17 laps to go, Patrick was 23rd but still on the lead lap. She displayed impressive racing savvy by moving up to 8th with nine laps remaining as the racing became furious with eventual race winner Bobby Gerhart still at the front.
"I was working the outside line," Patrick said. "I know what [Dale Earnhardt, Jr.] sees in the outside line because you don't have to lift up there while everybody else has to check up. I had so much momentum going by everyone. I took a few chances and it worked out. It was fun.
"I definitely learned how to use the fenders a little bit," she said. "I felt the fenders, too. I don't care that I did because now I know what it feels like to be pushed up the track. I wanted to be smart; make it to the end and learn something in this race.
"It was really cool to come back in the top 5 again. I really said, 'What the heck, I made it this far,' so I jumped up high and didn't have many takers up there. It was a lot of fun. I was bumped from the side, bumped from the front, bumped from the back. I had so much fun in a race car [Saturday]. ... I can't wait to do it again."
2. Patrick impressed the boss. Considering that team co-owner Kelley Earnhardt's father, Dale, was a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, and her brother is Dale Jr., it takes a lot to impress her. But Patrick succeeded in doing so on Saturday.
"I was sitting in Dale Jr.'s motor home watching it and I was saying, 'Damn, girl! Damn, girl!'" Kelley Earnhardt said. "I'm ecstatic. A. We brought home a race car in one piece and finished sixth. She did a fantastic job of bringing the race car up there. She showed us she is able to drive, definitely. One time I saw her on the high side and she drove it down low and I thought, 'C'mon, let's pull off an Earnhardt and pass 18 cars in three laps and win this thing.' She did fantastic in her first stock car race, she was aggressive, didn't back off and pulled off a good finish.
"I would have liked to have seen her in the lead but she did a great job. The spin was good for her to go to the back and come back up through the pack and learn. That is what she needs to do if she is going to learn these cars."
3. Bobby Gerhart, the victor, didn't mind being upstaged by Patrick. Shortly after winning the race, the grizzled Gerhart was not upset that his record sixth ARCA victory at Daytona was being overlooked because of the attention Patrick brought to this race.
"I'm glad she was here," Gerhart said. "It brought some much-needed attention to the series. I actually welcome the opportunity to have a national platform."
Gerhart didn't get a chance to meet the IndyCar Series driver afterwards because she was swarmed by fans and media.
"I didn't see her or talk to her all week," he said. "How about that? But I did notice this extremely large group of media outside her trailer near mine -- I thought they were coming to see me."
While Danica dominated the attention, Gerhart's achievement was historic.
"As a little kid, I dreamed of having an opportunity to come here and race," he said. "When that happens, naturally comes the passion to come out and win, but I couldn't imagine doing it this many times. I've got to tell you, though, I hate the number six. We've got to swing for seven."
4. Tony Eury Jr. may have tipped his hand that Patrick will race in next Saturday's Nationwide race at Daytona. While Patrick and Kelley Earnhardt said they will wait until Monday to make a decision whether she'll compete, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said if the team decides to go with Kelly Bires, the crew is "prepared to change the seat." In other words, Patrick's seat is already in one of the team's Nationwide Series cars.
"We're ready," Eury said. "It's just a matter of if we get a phone call that says 'yes,' we'll be ready. If we get a phone call that says 'no,' we'll change seats and be back down here."
Patrick remains noncommittal. "I haven't made any decisions for next Saturday; I'm just thinking about today and what I've learned and what I can do better," she said. "I'm proud of everyone's hard work thus far. We have not talked at all about what is going on next weekend. You needn't forget that Kelly Bires is running the full season. He has been a really great teammate, so we haven't made any decisions."
Kelley Earnhardt said the decision will be made by Patrick. "It's totally her decision. I don't know if one race is going to put it in the bucket for her, but she is going to have to think about that. She is probably thinking right now, 'Hell, yes, let's go,' because she is beaming with excitement; but let's take the night and think about it.
"I'm 50/50. I want to see her out there doing it because this is what we signed up to do, but there is a lot of experience [in that race] I don't know if she is ready for."
Just a hunch, but I believe Patrick will be in the Nationwide race next Saturday.
5. Just follow the crowd. Ever since arriving at Daytona, Patrick has been the pied piper. That was certainly the case after the ARCA race as mobs of fans and media followed her to the transporter. And, just to show that security will be a problem in keeping the crowds at bay, fans were able to infiltrate Patrick's transporter area as the driver addressed the media. In fact, one guy wearing a NAPA jacket and a University of Alabama cap was front and center, taking personal video with his digital camera, acing out reporters from The Charlotte Observer, The Los Angeles Times and SI.com for the best position.
Patrick's presence was reminiscent of a rock star, but if anyone can handle that, it's JR Motorsports.
"I've been part of a rock star, what are you talking about," Kelley Earnhardt said, referring to her brother, Dale. "But [Danica's crowd] was part of a bigger crowd than we have seen with Dale Jr. in quite some time. It's pretty cool. I'm glad for her; it was a successful outcome. She did a great job, and now we have a lot of positive things to talk about."
After spending her entire career in open-wheel race cars, Patrick knew she would have a few surprises in a stock car. But she seems to be a quick learner.
"There were a lot of yellows today," Patrick said. "I mean a lot of yellows! And the car does get pretty loose when you get hit. I always made sure when I hit someone I did it in a straight line. Everything surprised me a little bit, but nothing was crazy. That is why I had fun, too."
After dodging some squirrels in ARCA, Patrick now has to step up the game when she goes against a tougher brand of competition in the Nationwide races, which features some of the top NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who double-dip.