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Can a woman make it big on the track in NASCAR? Danica Patrick gets her turn to try

  Danica Patrick listens as crew chief Tony Eury Jr. talks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

   By Mike Mulhern

   The biggest star here this weekend, the person getting the most attention, the one maybe under the most pressure, is a diminutive, attractive brunette from Wisconsin, who turns 28 in a few weeks, who has been acclaimed as much for her modeling skills as her driving skills, and who is now about to embark on perhaps the biggest challenge of her life – racing a stock car at Daytona.
   And Danica Patrick has been the center of a hurricane of publicity and media since she arrived here Wednesday, from a New York City ad campaign shoot (for COPD -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
   "I understand I realize I have to compartmentalize," she says. "If I think about everything I have to do, it's pretty overwhelming. This next month will be really big; there's a lot going on.
   "It's been pretty crazy, and I'm just trying to keep my head on straight and eliminate those distractions."
   So can 'Danica' add her name to the NASCAR pantheon of racers so well known by just their first name – Cale, Bobby, Donnie, Richard, Dale, Junior, Jimmie, Jeff, Mark....
    Well Danica's big day is only hours away, Saturday, when the rubber meets the track, and she gets to show what she's learned so far about NASCAR stockers, the ARCA version, in the 200, which will be sandwiched into a jammed schedule of Daytona 500 qualifying (1 p.m.), the ARCA 200 (4:30 p.m.), and the Bud Shootout (8 p.m.). Patrick qualified 12th Friday.

   Jill George: Danica's not the only woman in the ARCA field (Photo: ARCA)

    Sunday's Super Bowl pushed NASCAR to squeeze all this action into Saturday, rather than try to compete heads-up against that event.
   And in fact that might prove to be a good move for the Daytona track, because 500 qualifying itself has been rather boring the last few years.
    So what to expect here from the celebrated Indy-car racer?
   Hard to tell. Sometimes newcomers to NASCAR hit with a splash, like Juan Pablo Montoya, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson; remember Montoya's spin-and-recovery in heavy traffic at Talladega, and Kenseth's sudden first Cup run back in '98 at Dover, and that Johnson showed little during his time in Nationwide, before Cup...
    So for the moment all we've got to go on is how she's carrying herself here, what she's saying.

  And Jennifer Jo Cobb too (Photo: ARCA)

    And how her soon-to-be fellow racers are considering her.
   Like Jeff Burton:
   "Until you see them in competition, in a good car, it's hard to make that judgment. I will tell you that I was impressed with Danica -- watching her race last year in cars that weren't as competitive. Compared to her teammates, she did well. 
    "So I thought last year, even though it wasn't a great year for her, it gained her a lot of respect inside racing, where people understand 'Okay, the team is kind of struggling, and she's besting her teammates in a lot of situations.' 
    "So we don't know.  I mean some people adapt to stock cars, some people don't.  Some people adapt to Indy-cars; some people don't. 
     "It may be a different skill set where she excels at it or doesn't. 
     "Until I see her, and watch her race, I can't answer that question. 
     "I do want to say that her ability to be successful or not successful doesn't depend on her being a 'her.'
     "There's no reason a woman cannot be successful in this sport, there is no reason in the world. 
     "And she, by my eyes, has brought the most talent to the table so far. 
     "I believe women can be as successful as men in this sport, I really do." 


    Jeff Burton says Patrick has impressed him so far (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Patrick certainly isn't coming into this game as any milquetoast. A little naive, perhaps. But certainly feisty about it, and apparently optimistic....even though she's got a lot to learn and digest in just a short time – trying to run the full Indy-car tour and squeeze in a dozen or so NASCAR/ARCA events.
    Now this isn't the first time a woman has raced in NASCAR. That goes back to the early Fifties, with Louise Smith and Sara Christian and more, and then Janet Guthrie in the 1970s, and Patty Moise and maybe a dozen more since.
   In fact Patrick isn't the only woman in the ARCA field. There are more than half a dozen more, most prominent being Alli Owens and Leilani Munter ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChCEksECfZg ).
   But then Patrick is as much a 200-mph swimsuit model as just another racer. That's both a blessing and a curse. Her too-hot-for-TV ads (check the web) and even her on-TV ads, and not-a-bit modest magazine layouts have brought her fame around the country. She may be one of the three most well-known racers among the general public.
   Now on the track, well, she's not been all that bad, but then again not really all that outstanding. And the Indy-car world has maybe only half a dozen solid drivers and only three or so really good teams...compared to NASCAR, where anyone of more than 20 drivers has a legitimate shot at winning the season-opening Daytona 500. Plus, some very good Indy-car drivers, like three-time champion Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti, have struggled over here, with these awkward, boxy, slow-to-speed and slow-to-slow steel sleds.
   Throw in Patrick's noticeably inept PR-and-marketing effort last year, which stumbled time after time in getting the Danica-NASCAR story right, and, well, she does have a lot to live up to, with all the hype. And there are a number of fans who simply don't think she's got what it takes, who see this project as a new marketing campaign for the Danica 'brand,' as the Indy-car world continues all-but falling apart : http://www.danicaracingstore.com/index.php
    But now it's time to start racing, and show us what she's got.
   On the plus side – the big plus side – she's got the support of Chevrolet's Rick Hendrick, via Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister and business partner Kelley. And she's got Tony Eury Jr., Dale Jr.'s cousin and long-time racing partner.


  And Alli Owens, who may be the best female racer in Saturday's field (Photo: ARCA)


  Yet, what to make of Danica Patrick?
   "I've never been afraid to be honest," she says. "I have perhaps become more gracious over the last year or two, to how that comes out.
   "But I will always be me, I will always be emotional, I will always have somewhat of a temper.
   "That's because I care. It means a lot to me, it means everything to me. When the racing is going well, nothing else really matters. It's how we think, it's important to us to have emotions.
   "From an outside perspective looking at NASCAR, there are a lot of plain and simple answers. We want to see emotion; that's why we watch sports, isn't it?
   "We want to see someone happy...we want to see someone mad.
   "That's kind of what makes sports. Otherwise it's just a TV show, pre-programmed."
   Her first moments in a stock car, in December, in Orlando, were interesting. "I didn't stall it...which they'd been expecting me to do," she says. "And the gear shift is in a little different spot for me.
   "The car felt like it was sitting up pretty high...and the powerband of the engine is different. In Indy-car we have this short powerband, but in these cars it's a lot longer powerband, so no matter what gear you're in, you're accelerating."
   Pit stops will likely be the toughest part of the game to learn, with the speed limit and pit rules, and speed limit lights on the dash.

  Fellow Indy-car racer Milka Duno is also in the ARCA field (Photo: ARCA)

   "On a pit stop, we joke that there is a button for everything in Indy-car, and there is," Patrick goes on. "But here, with all the lights and colors, it can be a little distracting. It's a lot.
    "And every pit stop is different, depending on who's in their box. So a lot of that is going to depend on me and Tony (Eury) Jr. (her crew chief) being aware of what is going on.
   "I think I feel most comfortable when I'm out on the track."
   Now it's time for the NASCAR world to look-see.

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   Friday Qualifying for Saturday's ARCA 200 at Daytona



 So can Dale Earnhardt Jr. (here with his own crew chief Lance McGrew) keep this Danica thing from being too much of a distraction? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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