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Danica Patrick is looking pretty.....as the DANICAR tour continues toward Saturday's Daytona 300

 Danica Patrick: The Real Deal? So far.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   The day after a feature role on CBS' CSI, and two days before her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide 300, Danica Patrick zipped up to fifth in the final round of practice for Saturday afternoon's race....and then spent 30 minutes with the media talking about her expectations.
      "My goal purely is to finish, just to finish the race -- log 300 miles of practice," she says.
      "Then just staying calm out there. These guys are driving hard, for sure. Everybody is out there to prove themselves.
      "I need to be ready for that.
       "While I'm not as comfortable as they are with the car and its tendencies and what's happening, I need to stay on my toes and learn the racing style  -- learn how these guys drive...learn their personalities out there...absorb it all....and finish the race."
    And as impressive as she's been her first days in a stock car, perhaps her bigger achievement here is deftly handling the media crunch.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns the cars she's racing, says he can walk through the garage himself more freely now, since the media is so focused on Patrick.
     "I think that played into what made me ready to go NASCAR racing," she says of the attention. "This is a bigger stage.
     "I feel I've really built up a lot of patience and tolerance and confidence along the way in Indy-car to be ready for everything, including this."

    Media mobbing Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Well, she's doing pretty well so far. And almost to the point where the Daytona 500 itself sometimes seems secondary.
      "I can't control how much is out there, and what people say, how much they say," Patrick says. "I don't by any means want to take away from the amazing drivers out there. That's not my mission, to be the big story.
      "But if I can do anything to help the series, the other drivers, perhaps drag in some sponsors, I'm happy to do it.
       "And I get benefit from that too."

    So is Patrick getting some measure of satisfaction in proving some of her detractors wrong? "If I spent all my time trying to prove to everybody I could drive a race car, I would be out of energy," she says.
    "All I really need to do is keep my team happy, keep my crew chief happy, and keep myself happy....and know I'm pushing a limit.
    "Some stuff is going to be tough; I'm not going to come up to speed as quickly.
    "But as long as I'm progressing, that's all I can really use as a barometer.
    "I can't really change people's minds: They have to watch and judge for themselves."
    And while she did well in the ARCA 200 "this is a whole 'nother ball of wax," she says of Saturday's 300.
    "This car is not as easy to drive.
     "There are a lot of really great drivers out there.
     "Everybody is running close.
      "Everybody wants to make that next step up to Cup.
      "This is a much different situation for me."
    The difference in the cars?
   "The big difference for me from last weekend (when she finished sixth in the ARCA 200, her stock car racing debut) to this weekend is the ARCA car rolled through the corner and there was a lot of grip, and the closing rates were not as dramatic as they are in the Nationwide car.
    "So just dealing with how the car goes over the bumps -- it's a little more on the edge with this car.
     "If you have to jump out of the throttle, it's a little bit of drama out there.
     "I did (review) some in-car camera and race footage from last year. Everyone went loose last year. Please, I'm already loose."
    And then there's pit road, a problem at times even for some of NASCAR's best, as Earnhardt can attest.
     "...stopping under green...stopping with the whole train of people....I need to know the limit of the brakes, what the car stops like," Patrick says. "The deceleration rates are so different."


    Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. seems to be having a lot of fun with this Danica Patrick gig (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Still, the bottom line for Patrick, according to the original story line she set out a couple months ago when she first embarked on this adventure, has been she'll only do this if she likes it.
    The verdict: "Yes, I do like it.
    "I didn't shy away from saying I had so much fun in the ARCA race.
    "I'm still having fun.
     "It's a little bit more of a challenge, for sure. You've got to be up on the wheel a little bit in this car.
     "So I'm having a blast.
      "I can't deny it's really fun racing.
      "My big reason for wanting to drive stock cars was because the racing looked fun.
     "And now I know it is.
    "I don't doubt there are going to be hard days....when you just want to park it...you're just saving your life every corner.
     "But all in all these are really fun cars to drive.
     "I love the racing; I love there's passing. I love there's side-by-side."
    And at Daytona she realizes she needs friends, drafting buddies, out there:  "You want to be the kind of person that people will jump up high with, or drop down low with you and create a line, get the momentum going.
    "That's going to be a slow, steady process, running with these people to build up their confidence in me.
     "I've been doing everything I can to make friends out there and be fair.
      "Hopefully it's working.
      "I've been very overwhelmed with how many drivers have said they would help me out. I'm not going to waste that.
       "Guys have been extremely generous.
      "I don't plan on wasting that, or taking that for granted."



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           Danica Patrick is wearing her big-boy britches now (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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