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Danica takes centerstage at Daytona...and upstages some of the sport's big guns

  Can she make it in NASCAR? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Okay, here's Danica...and now, after months and months of talk and talk and talk, it's time to make something happen.
   But first she's got to run another media gauntlet, which she did Thursday morning here, during the annual Daytona 500 pre-race media frenzy. And it was striking that her little media table in the big tent just behind the start-finish line was jammed with a huge throng of reporters...while just a few feet away Matt Kenseth, last year's Daytona 500 winner and the 2003 Cup tour champion, was dealing with only a handful.
   "Nah, it doesn't bother me," Kenseth said of the contrast.
   Patrick, after all, is part of the current NASCAR PR hoopla, as prelude to her ARCA 200 run Saturday afternoon. (Of course she's not the only female driver in the ARCA field; Alli Owen, Jill George, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Milka Duno, and Leilani Munter are also entered.)
  Patrick's fast lap during her 29 laps over the five-hour Thursday practice session was 14th quickest, at 180.484 mph.
   "I recently heard that it's a crash-fest, and I didn't know that," Patrick said. "But now I do, and that just tells me I have to be smart out there.
   "Everybody runs the yellow line all the way around the whole race, and you just stay in line and wait for the something to happen at the end.
   "You run so much closer in these cars than in Indy-cars. In these cars I had to close that two-car-length to half-a-car-length, and you feel a little claustrophobic turning into a corner, being that close to a car.
   "Another thing is that's why accidents are so much bigger, because everyone is nose to tail.
   "But if I'm part of an accident I'll just have to learn from it."
   And her expectations? "I hope to do more than just finish, but I don't know how it's going to go...and a lot of these guys have done it for a long time," she said. "I don't think I can put a number on it.
   "The idea for me is to improve over the weekend, and makes as few mistakes as possible."
   If she does well enough, she could run in next weekend's Nationwide 300. That's still up in the air.
   For example, pitting may be one of her biggest challenges. Pitting alone is one thing; pitting with 20 or 30 other cars is quite another.
   Her decision about the 300 -- "It's going to be more of the feeling I have (after the ARCA race), and how few mistakes I made, and how comfortable I felt in the different situations," she says.
   She plans an announcement one way or the other Monday. "I just want to be smart," she says. "There are guys out there working toward a championship...and there will be a lot of Cup guys out there too. It's been recommended that it's not the best idea to start there, and I'm not going t ignore the people giving me advice."
    And her detractors?
   "That's okay, there are always people who cheer against you...I don't let other people's opinions affect the way I feel," she said.
    As in the eye of the hurricane...?
    "This is a little more than the Indy 500...and we're still way over a week out from the Daytona 500. I'm just flattered to be in a position where people are interested in me.
   "I'm lucky to be in this position."
    But is this ARCA-NASCAR thing just another marketing to move to boost the Danica Patrick 'brand'?
    "I'm here because I want to race in NASCAR," she insists. "The opportunity has come up many different times, but I never did it.
    "This time I felt 'Wow! The racing looks really fun.' And I like oval racing, and we're getting less and less of that in Indy-car. Plus, it's getting harder and harder to pass (in Indy-car).
   "I'm just excited to get out there and pass and overtake. I remember when we (in Indy-cars) got to Kentucky (Speedway) and got to pass."
    Overwhelming here?
    "A new driver to the series...and how difficult it is, how difficult the racing is, how good the drivers are.
   "You see more Indy-car to NASCAR drivers than the other way.
   "I'm fortunate to come along at a time where we all have a more realistic perspective on the learning curve."
   Thanks in large part to Juan Pablo Montoya.
    She's also interested in getting back into the Los Angeles market; Indy-car no longer races at Fontana or Phoenix.
Juan Pablo Montoya has gone through just what Patrick is now going through. The hardest thing to deal with? "Probably in her shoes and like mine where I came from, it is I think more people want you to fail than to do good," Montoya says. "Not because they are bad people, but you will be better news if you fail than if you did well. That is always hard.
   "But at the same time, there are always people who want you to do well. And it is a struggle because you are not going to do well to start with. I'm sure Danica here will be fine in the ARCA car and even in the Nationwide race, because you run wide-open, and if they have a good set-up in the car, she will be fine.  It is going to be interesting to see when we start getting to other tracks how she will run.
   "I was lucky when I came here -- I had a couple of races the year before in Nationwide and stuff, so I kind of got to build up to it.
    "She is such big news right now. Everybody is sitting back and waiting to see what happens. It is exciting to see how she is going to do. I haven't really talked to her, but if she needs some help she can just come over and ask the questions. I am sure she probably talked to Dario (Franchitti) already. I think she will be fine. To start with she is going to struggle; but if they are patient enough with her, I think she will be fine. It is going to be hard until it clicks. Once it clicks and you understand what you have to do to go fast, then you go 'Ahhhh!'
    "The feeling is so different. The feedback you get from the car is so different from what I was used to -- that was really really hard. Because in an open-wheel car that thing starts 'stepping out' and you are going to hit the fence. Here the thing starts 'stepping out' and you still aren't loose enough. Especially for her to go back and forth (between Indy-car racing and NASCAR), I think it is going to be harder, not being committed to one thing 100 percent."
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  Danica Patrick just thinks she's used to being the center of attention....wait till she gets a big dose of NASCAR...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





Inside scoop?

What's the inside scoop, Mike? I know the first true test will come when she practices with the rest of the field. But have you heard how much seat time has she gotten and how is she progressing?

I'm going topside right now

I'm going topside right now to watch her run ARCA practice...shouldn't take very long to figure her out. I'll get back to you in a little bit. thanks for the push.

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