Even when she's not behind the wheel, Danica Patrick is looking more and more like a NASCAR driver. Before prerace introductions at Nationwide Series races she'll hold court with other drivers, telling tales and hamming it up like one of the boys. Then, minutes before hopping into her number 7 Chevy, she'll use the stock car terms of "loose" and "tight" to describe to her crew how she believes her car will handle on the track, which is a change from last year when Patrick often slipped into the open-wheel vernacular of "oversteer" and "understeer."
But it's on the track where Patrick is really showing signs that she belongs. Last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in just her 16th career Nationwide start, Patrick came in fourth, the highest finish by a female in a national NASCAR race in the sport's 62-year history. Charging back from two laps down midway through the Sam's Town 300, Patrick flashed the car control and calculated aggression of a Sprint Cup veteran as she passed one car after another. She benefited from the fact that she did not have to pit late in the race for fuel—unlike Cup regulars Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, who had dominated for much of the day—but this was among the most arresting performances of her career, right alongside her two top five finishes in the Indy 500 and her IndyCar victory in Japan in 2008.
"Every time out I'm learning so much," Patrick said on Sunday evening from her home in Phoenix. "I'm getting better at restarts, pit stops, learning how to use the air to make a pass—everything. I'm just focusing on becoming more comfortable in the car... . I don't know when the time will come to make a decision on what I'll do next year."
The Danica Decision undoubtedly will become the top story in U.S. motor sports this summer as Patrick weighs whether to move to NASCAR full time in 2012 or remain with the IndyCar Series. She's running a full open-wheel schedule this year and 12 Nationwide races. Her contract with IndyCar's Andretti Autosport expires at season's end, and there will be a long line of suitors in NASCAR offering her a topflight Cup ride. Patrick is marketing gold—she would be the rare inexperienced stock car driver who could lure multimillion-dollar sponsorships to fund her team—and she certainly would be a boon to Cup racing, which has steadily lost fans since its popularity peaked in the middle of the last decade.
Patrick, currently fourth in the Nationwide standings, is being mentored by former Cup driver Johnny Benson, who is teaching her the differences between piloting a 3,400-pound stock car versus a 1,500-pound Indy car. She's also constantly by the side of Tony Eury Jr., who is in his second season as her crew chief. "We knew going in she was capable of finishing in the top 15 this year," Eury says. "But if we got everything right on the car, we knew we could finish in the top 10 with this girl really easily."
Whether or not her future is in stock cars, on Saturday in the Nevada desert Patrick sure looked like a NASCAR natural.
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For Lars Anderson's previews and analysis of each Cup race, go to SI.com/racing