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Danica Patrick: You think you know her, but maybe you don't

Danica Patrick: You think you know her, but maybe you don't

One of Danica Patrick's army of followers

  By Mike Mulhern

   This is where Danica Patrick made her claim to fame, in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, finishing third, just months after the historic Indy-car tour win, in Japan.
   Now full-time on NASCAR's Nationwide tour, she'll be running in Saturday's 250 (4:30 p.m. ET; qualifying 12:35 p.m.).
   But unless she gets in gear and starts doing something out on the track, Patrick is in danger of becoming just another 'all-show, no-game' player.
   Patrick is a marketing dream, a real plug-and-play: http://bit.ly/OjuwRj   
   And she's spent some 10 years racing to get to this point in her career, at 30.
   Buy the tee shirts ( http://www.danicapatrick.com/ ), watch the videos (  http://bit.ly/QPEjiY ), ogle ( http://bit.ly/O3ryPS ), sure. It's all good, clean fun.
   And admire that she's willing to get out there and mix it up with the bad boys.


   There's more to Danica Patrick than just what you see out on the track.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But, after all the hype, promotion and marketing, somebody needs to tell her 'Hey, girl, it's time to start getting the job done out on the track.'
   There has been a group of racing purists who have been down on Patrick because they see her as getting breaks in this sport just because she's a woman, breaks that a man might not get.
   And on the other side, there is a group of those who fiercely defend Patrick for having the gumption to take on one of the toughest jobs in all of sport -- racing NASCAR.
   Yes, NASCAR and her sponsors are shamelessly marketing her, even though her resume really isn't that impressive.
   And there are many who have been giving her time to mature into the game, to learn enough to play it at this level.
   But that time may be running out.
   Danica Patrick has the very best NASCAR equipment money can buy. Rick Hendrick engineering, Dale Earnhardt Jr. marketing, Tony Stewart mentoring.
    It's time to produce.
   And in NASCAR so far she's just not been much of a player, not really.
   Now as confusing and time-limited as practice has been for the 200 drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past few days, and as tight and tricky as this track is ( drivers need a lot of camber to make it through the corners, and too much camber can lead to vicious crashes), this particular race might not be the best place to put the heat on Danica Patrick.
    However, time is running out...and she risks falling into that 'good looks, no talent' category of sportsman.
    Whether or not she realizes that is unclear.
    At times she seems almost blissfully naive about it all.


   The mystique of Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- oddly calming for Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Maybe NASCAR really is just all about marketing....

    The new Miranda Lambert video?
    "I can't wait to see it... because I haven't. But it was a lot of fun," Patrick says. "Miranda is a very, very cool girl.
     "It was definitely a long day, but she rewarded me with a Randarita at the end of the day, her cocktail: Bacardi, Sprite Zero, and Crystal Light. It just tastes like straight sugar, which is delightful.
    "We got to be a couple of kick-ass girls; that's always a fun role."
    But Saturday it will be back to business, at this legendary track.
    "It did feel a little funny driving through Gasoline Alley. We're used to walking it (Indy-cars are pushed out to the track in May.)
    "And I'm used to seeing the Alley Cats. I didn't see any Alley Cats.
    "Just the 'yellow shirts.'"
    The yellow shirts are the renowned track police force.  "They say that the yellow shirts are pretty strict... but I see all the yellow shirts and they all like wave and hug me," she says. "You just have to be really nice to them, smile, wave, just show them some love."


  Danica Patrick did well at Darlington, but here at Loudon NH her last time out, things didn't go that well (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Driving the car here, Indy-car or NASCAR, she says the issue is "about finding a balance with the car.
     "All you're doing in an Indy-car is trimming it out... and if I could have more downforce in these cars I'd probably take it, because in an Indy-car we learned very quickly it's about how much throttle you could carry around here."
     The toughest part of the track for her? Turn one. Possibly because of the huge frontstretch grandstands, that create the sense of racing 200 mph into a very narrow tunnel.
    "It has the most issues," she says, "for whatever reason.
     "I don't know if it's partly because you get there a little quicker because two, three and four are a little bit more smooth and the arc is nice and smooth.
     "But turn one has always been the issue, no matter what car I've been in.
     "It always gives you that little bit of a loose feeling getting in at times. And with these (stock) cars especially... you have to set them up for the long haul, for the whole run, as opposed to the Indy-car, which has so much downforce and grip that you could set it up and it'd stay like that through the whole race or the whole run.
    "We're going to spend a lot of time focusing on one."

    With her double talents, there is the natural question would she attempt the rare Charlotte-Indianapolis double?
    "The Indy 500 next year? I would love to do it," she says.
    "I love the track; I love the race. I've had really good races.
    "I feel it was always one of my strongest races of the year.
    "That's something I would like to do... and maybe it will happen, maybe it won't.
    "But the only way it's going to happen if it's with someone I really feel I can have a shot to go out there and win. Because it's unfair to the history I've had here, and to my memory, to do anything less.
    "On top of that, there are a lot of logistical issues to iron out."


   Maybe her detractors are simply too tough on her. But Danica Patrick keeps toughing it out (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And there have been a lot of logistical issues to iron out right here, with 200 racing teams jammed into the garages and parking lots, and crews forced to tote equipment a far piece from hauler to race car, under brutal heat.    
    "This is not exactly the best layout for stock cars," she says dryly, "because they use the haulers so much.
    "And it's also been like the hottest summer I can remember."
    For the stock car crews "it's just a little bit of a pain in the butt," she says.
   All in all, though, Danica Patrick seems more comfortable here. This season has been a first for her on the full NASCAR grind, week after week after week.
    "The best thing about coming back here is that it feels familiar, and it feels comfortable. I'm always happy," she says.
   "I woke up and pushed the blinds up in the bus, and I said to Paul (Hospenthal, her husband) 'It feels good.'
    "It sounds like a story you wouldn't believe, but I said 'It feels good to look out the window and see Indianapolis.'  I like seeing it. It feels very comfortable, very familiar.
     "I've had a lot of different experiences here that can help me.
    "And it's just a special place... where I feel like from the beginning I've always really believed that you have to show this track respect, and it will hopefully show you the respect back.
     "Especially in Indy-car this place can bite you pretty big. I don't think it's too much different in a stock car, to be honest. I don't want to find the wall.
    "I haven't found the wall, and I don't want to."


   One of her strongest attributes: perseverance...and the ability to keep on smiling (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



I guess I'm in a minority..I don't think Danica's doing a bad job this season behind the wheel. She had some starts last season..but I barely count them...kinda like taking a car out for a couple road tests before buying it...once you buy the car does it really drive the same as you remember ? I would like a rookie NNS driver to do a season + in an open wheel car..and see comparatively how they fare? I would wager not much better..maybe even worse!

Daphne, I agree completely. Danica has been doing

Daphne, I agree completely. Danica has been doing fine. She's been making steady progress. Everyone finds NASCAR is much tougher than it looks. I'd like to see her do a minimum of 2 years full time Nationwide before attempting full time Cup but looks like next year will be her biggest test.

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