You can hear it in her voice. The optimism, the joy of opening a new chapter in her career, no longer flavors Danica Patrick's speech when she talks about racing in NASCAR. Instead, eight races into her first full-time season in stock cars, Patrick is now feeling the same base emotion that grips most inexperienced drivers in the Nationwide series: frustration.
The most visible sign of her irritation came last Saturday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway. Patrick led a lap at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, but she was blocked by Sam Hornish Jr. on the last lap as she charged toward the checkered flag. Patrick's Chevy was pinched into the wall, which caused her to finish 13th. On the cool-down lap, Patrick rammed into the rear of Hornish's car, sending him into the wall. Upset that Hornish didn't give room on the track, she radioed her team, "It seems like people don't freaking like me, man."
Like many drivers before her who tried to jump from IndyCar to NASCAR—such as former IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti and Hornish—Patrick is struggling to adapt to piloting the bulkier, heavier car with less downforce. At the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, for instance, open-wheel cars run wide open for the entire race; stock cars, on the other hand, require braking heading into every turn. "This first year is going to be a learning experience for me," Patrick said earlier this season. "I know there will be a lot of bumps in the road. I'm in this for the long haul. My hope is just that I get a little better every day."
And she has. She's currently 11th in the Nationwide standings, and her average finish is near the middle of the pack. (That's about where she was as an IndyCar rookie, but in 2005 she ran near the front more often, which is difficult to do no matter the field size.) As her 'Dega experience illustrated, she still has plenty of room to grow.