Channeling David Pearson? Danica Patrick focuses on her first Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Danica Patrick, welcome to the meanest track in stock car racing.
The Heartthrob of Daytona, centerpiece of a massive marketing campaign, is racing here for the first time in her career.
And from what she's shown so far, well, the over-under looks like a highly active bet.
After Friday night's 147 laps of Nationwide racing, she'll be facing --- take a deep breath – 367 laps in Saturday night's Southern 500.
More than one person here is second-guessing her game plan of Sprint Cup racing here, especially since she hasn't raced Cup in several weeks.
Not only is Darlington Raceway tricky enough with only one car on the track, because you have to rim-ride through the corners, it is extremely fast since the repave five years ago, like 200 mph or so into the corners.
Patrick's spotter may be exhausted by the end of the weekend.
The rest of the Southern 500 field, veterans, are watching Patrick with bemusement. Can't really say anything negative of course, because she's a NASCAR headline marketing machine. But they will have to dodge her for four hours.
Yes, four hours.
Yes, 367 laps.
Jimmie Johnson, with a nod toward Patrick's 33 Nationwide races over the past two years, notes, with a laugh, "When you get to about half-throttle in the Cup car, that's what a Nationwide car feels like. There's a lot left from that point down in a Cup car.
"This track, in my opinion, has the highest sensation of speed of any track we go to. And it's due to it being so narrow.
"It will be an eye-opening experience. We've all looked at this race on her schedule and know it's going to be tough for her."
Danica Patrick at speed, her first day at Darlington Raceway. And those black marks on the wall aren't painted there.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Yes, Danica Patrick's Darlington debut could be worth the price of admission.
And speaking of history here, Patrick has some brushing up to do.
"I think I heard it was the first paved track. Is that true?" she was saying Friday afternoon during a rushed pace between Southern 500 practice and Nationwide 200 practice. "And that's why it's called 'the lady in black' because it finally got paved.
"I'm learning my history. I had a lot of respect for this place coming in, but having finally hit the track in both the cars, I've got even more now."
It was a busy Friday for Patrick.
"Everything in the Nationwide car felt pretty decent," she says, looking ahead toward Friday night's 200. "I felt got up to speed pretty quickly. Felt pretty comfortable.
"Then to come over and jump in the Cup car, and it's definitely different.
"This is a tough place, and everything they said about it is true. This lady in black is very intimidating.
"I'm just trying to get comfortable with what the car needs me to do: where to brake, how heavy to brake….
The side of Danica Patrick's Chevy, after one of her four brushes with the outside wall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I've got my Darlington stripes officially…all the way down the right side of the car.
"Tony Stewart (her car owner and mentor) has been very helpful, giving me advice, giving me a few tips that helped.
"I'm very appreciative that Chip Ganassi let Tab Boyd come over and spot for me for this Cup race; that's a big help, because he's got a lot of knowledge.
"I've got everything in my corner; I just need time.
"I just need to get comfortable.
"It's definitely not going to be an easy, breezy night.
"Like Tony said, I'm probably going to hate him by the end of the weekend.'"
So is Darlington Raceway as bad a track as she anticipated?
"I don't think bad is the right word," Patrick says. "It's a challenging track. It's a unique track.
"And that's obviously why NASCAR keeps coming back -- because it has those interesting characteristics.
"This is not a cookie-cutter track by any means.
"That's the challenge."
"My expectations are pretty tempered," she says.
"Even in the Nationwide car I understand it's going to be difficult.
"It's a unique style of racing, with the way that the passing happens.
"I definitely think getting through the night with a respectable night is what I'm hoping for in the Nationwide car.
"And as far as the Cup car, I just want to finish.
"I just want to finish -- which is going to be a challenge. The cars definitely move around quite a bit, and you're carrying a lot of speed through these corners, and there are going to be a lot of other guys around you running really hard.
"It's a narrow track. It's got great, big straightaways…but there's one lane going in and out.
"Just getting to the end of the Cup race is going to be the accomplishment for me."
Bouncing off the walls isn't unexpected. Even Jimmie Johnson did that here Friday.
"I hit the wall a few times," Patrick says. "The first time I hit the wall was my first run in the Nationwide car; I clipped it with the right-rear on the exit of turn two.
"Then in the Cup car I hit it entering three.
"And then the next time I hit it flat in three and four in the middle of the corner.
"And, oh yeah, right before that I hit the entry to three wall again.
"I've hit it four times now. Getting pretty cozy with it."
Actually Patrick seems rather confident that she's getting the hang of this place.
That may be good or bad.
Greg Zipadelli, the veteran crew chief who is handling the Patrick Cup project for Stewart, has his hands full this weekend.
"I asked Zippy after the practice if that was the type of hit that was going to make me get a tire rub and have to pit or was that okay?" she said.
"He said 'I think you would have been just fine. We would have just pulled the fender out when you came in for a pit stop.'
"That's good knowledge for me.
"Instead of panicking, or worrying and thinking I need to pit for the car being broken, I can just keep going and not worry about it.
"It's going to happen in the race; it's inevitable.
"I hope not. I hope everything goes so well it doesn't. But it probably will. And it's good for it to happen and then (me) jump right back into the lap and not let it bother me.
"I'm getting more and more comfortable with it."
Speed? Not much, really. Dead last through most of practice; up to 24th by the end of the second, and final, Cup practice.
"I was pretty pleased with how it went in the Nationwide car," she says. "I felt we had some decent speed for the very first run, and never being here before.
"In the Cup car -- obviously I'm not super-fast. I didn't expect to be very fast.
"I expected to just get experience. I'm not coming in thinking I should be anywhere in particular, based on my extreme lack of experience and knowledge of this place."
Uh, and just why did she and her marketers put this track on her limited Cup schedule?
"Darlington was chosen because of how difficult it is, and because of how much track time it takes to get comfortable," she says.
"We're starting that difficult and exciting process."
The rim-riding here isn't quite her cup of tea: "My comfort level with the wall is definitely medium. I don't think even in an Indy-car I liked being up by the wall.
"With these cars I've definitely gotten more comfortable getting up higher and higher. But here at Darlington you're riding the wall. You're not using it as a reference; you're riding the wall.
"It's a whole new level of getting comfortable with it.
"You're definitely threading the needle.
"This is definitely tough."
Ummmm, Jimmie Johnson's car has a touch of the Darlington wall on it too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)