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Tough year for Danica about to get much tougher

Published August 23, 2012

The toughest year of Danica Patrick’s racing career is about to get much tougher.

Starting Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where she will attempt 500 laps on the bone-rattling concrete of a cereal bowl-shaped bullring famous for its cacophony and chaos, Patrick will race in seven of the final 13 Sprint Cup races in preparation for her move to NASCAR’s premier series in 2013.

It’s a daunting slate for a driver who has struggled mightily in a full-time switch to NASCAR after seven years in the Izod IndyCar Series — yet Patrick can’t wait for it to begin.

After a star-crossed season marked by a half-dozen crashes, a few high-profile feuds and a high-arcing shoe tossed over a fence and in the path of her car, how could it get any worse?

“I’m starting sort of a new chapter here, a new season almost,” she told USA Today. “To be quite honest, I think I’m ready for a new season. I’ve had such (expletive) luck this year, and between my mistakes and others’ mistakes and things going wrong, I’m ready for a new season. So, bring it on.”

Patrick has an average finish of 21.3 and one top-10 in 22 Nationwide Series starts this season, and her results figure to be worse in Cup. In three starts this year, she hasn’t finished better than 30th.

This isn’t an audition, though. While she might continue to dabble in Nationwide next year, she will leap to Cup regardless of her results — and her Stewart-Haas Racing team has stressed there are no goals beyond her No. 10 Chevrolet completing each race.

“I don’t care if we run 53rd, as long as she can run all day,” said Greg Zipadelli, who has served as Patrick’s primary crew chief, strategist and life coach for her foray into Cup. “Bristol will be a tough race because it’s so easy to get in (crashes). If she can get in the frame of mind of what it takes to run 500 laps, it’ll help her for Dover (International Speedway). It’s not quite as bad. Then by Atlanta (Motor Speedway) and Texas (Motor Speedway), hopefully we can somehow run in the top 25. That would be an improvement.”

Her performance, though, still will be viewed by many as an indicator of how she might fare next season, and the scrutiny on racing’s most transcendent driver will be withering as always. In seven years since becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, Patrick has become among the most visible athletes in professional sports with 10 Super Bowl commercials and a plethora of endorsements with world-famous brands. It’s her celebrity mega-wattage that ensures multimillion-dollar sponsorships regardless of performance.

But team owner Tony Stewart said Patrick’s allure also can be a double-edged sword and recently pleaded, “I wish everybody would get off her back” — because the defending series champion worries Patrick sometimes gets caught up in expectations that are driven by the constant attention.

“It’s kind of disappointing because as much as the media has been great for her, they’ve been that much against her, too, because they’re so focused on where she qualifies (and) finishes,” Stewart said. “No one realizes it’s the first time she’s driven anything over 1,600 pounds in her life. It’s just about getting experience in the car.

“I even think at times her expectations are bigger than what they should be. What did you take away that you can use the next time? What mistakes did you make? What are the things that you did right? That’s the bigger focus vs. just where she finished.”

With the emphasis on education instead of gaining points, Stewart formulated a schedule of maximum difficulty with the longest race in NASCAR (the Coca-Cola 600, where Patrick finished 30th during her last Cup start May 27) and a few of its most punishing tracks (Darlington Raceway, Bristol and Dover).

“She’ll go to them at some point, so you might as well when there’s no pressure than to run as many laps as you can,” he said. “These are the places with a lot to learn, so those are the places to get her to first.”

Patrick, who started the season talking about contending for a Nationwide title, has worked on tempering her objectives. When a pit-road speeding penalty in the Southern 500 at Darlington turned a top-25 finish into a 31st, she chalked it up as an error that would have been more costly in 2013.

“It doesn’t really matter where I finish,” she said. “I need this year to learn as much as I possibly can before I get to Cup. The more lessons I can learn this year the better.”

The learning curve will be steep in virtually every category.

The 36-race Cup schedule will be more than twice as long as any season she raced in IndyCar, and the duration of the events will be 60 to 90 minutes longer than the bulk of the races she’s run with the exception of the Indianapolis 500. She is racing a 3,400-pound car that weighs roughly twice as much as she’s accustomed to and on tires that are nearly three times as narrow as the 29-inch rear wheels on an IndyCar.

Many open-wheel stars have tried to make the transition, including four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti’s failed 10-race foray in 2008. Three-time IndyCar champ Sam Hornish Jr. has only recently found solid footing in NASCAR in his fifth season. Only Juan Pablo Montoya has made it stick at NASCAR’s top level.

That’s why Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose JR Motorsports team has fielded Patrick in the Nationwide Series since 2010, said he isn’t frustrated by Patrick’s 11th-place ranking in the points standings.

“She’s not doing anything wrong, she’s just learning,” Earnhardt said. “She’s just going through the growing pains. Stock-car racing and the situations you find yourself in is different than the other style of racing she’s done. So she’s finding out how to pick your battles and how to be aggressive and be patient.

“It’s just unfortunately a crash course, no pun intended, because they’re two different cultures. It takes a totally different mentality to be competitive in an Indy car vs. a stock car. It’s just two different approaches.”

Tests of toughness

Patrick tested last week at Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete surface that offered a reasonable facsimile of Bristol, and Zipadelli said her speeds were comparable and her feedback on handling was solid.

A test session doesn’t provide adequate conditions for honing a driver’s “racecraft” — the ability to navigate traffic and gain positions without losing too much ground.

Zipadelli said Patrick is learning to strike a balance between setting up a car solely for a qualifying lap vs. the stability needed when manoeuvring through traffic.

“What she’s looking for doesn’t necessarily always mean there’s going to be speed,” he said. “That’s part of learning these cars and tracks. She has to learn how to figure out the feeling that she needs when she’s racing. It’s a lot different than when using the whole racetrack to make a lap time (in practice or qualifying).”

While there have been glimmers of success for Patrick on road courses (she led a career-high 20 laps last week at Montreal, where her Chevrolet hit a shoe thrown by a spectator and suffered mechanical problems) and the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, she often runs consistently between 11th and 15th on the 1.5-mile superspeedways that make up the bulk of the schedule.

Though Patrick has qualified well (an average start of 14.1) in Nationwide, there frequently has been at least one green-flag period each race that leaves her mired in the pack. Understanding how to peak better is critical for next season.

“I want to have a feel for the rhythm of the race, and when is an important time to go and when to save your stuff,” Patrick said. “The races all have their own sort of flow and feel, and things stick out as very important to have a good day. It’s important to finish so I can feel the whole distance.”

After leaving behind an IndyCar circuit where bumping fenders and banging wheels is frowned upon, Patrick also is digesting how to push the envelope in the contact sport of NASCAR. Tony Eury Jr., her crew chief in Nationwide, said rivals have taken advantage of Patrick’s inexperience in making aggressive moves on her, and that she’d need to return the favour by playing rough.

In Cup, she will have the moral support and mentorship of Zipadelli and Stewart, a crew chief-driver tandem that notched 33 Cup wins and two championships from 1999 to 2008.

When Stewart went through some meltdowns earlier in his career at Joe Gibbs Racing, it was Zipadelli who deftly held the team together.

“There’s nothing better than this sport as far as testing how tough you really are,” Zipadelli said. “It’s done it to the best of them. I tell her, ‘Don’t worry about it. Keep your head up.’ If this is what she wants to do and she works hard at it, she’ll see progress.”

Patrick’s input from Stewart has been limited, partially because their interaction has been minimal while running in different series even while at the same tracks. He’s had little advice to offer the past three months because there little that translates from his Cup setup to Patrick’s in Nationwide.

“When we’re in the same garage, it’ll be a lot easier to spend more time with each other, and the questions she’ll have will be a lot closer to what I’m feeling in my car,” Stewart said. “I’ll be there to answer questions. When I had Bobby Labonte as a teammate, just knowing I could go over there and talk to him, that was a big comfort for me.”

Some positive indicators

There is a sizable list of notable drivers who struggled in Nationwide before excelling immediately in Cup. Stewart was winless and Kasey Kahne managed a win in two seasons before each moved to Cup and won rookie of the year.

Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson contended for a championship during their first Cup season in 2002 after winning once each in their time in Nationwide.

“I never got comfortable in a Nationwide car; I really struggled,” Stewart said. “As soon as I got in a Cup car, I was a lot more comfortable. It was just a different feel.”

Though Sprint Cup cars have 30 per cent more horsepower than Nationwide cars, many drivers with open-wheel backgrounds find the horsepower-to-weight ratio to be more similar to the cars in which they cut their teeth. In IndyCar, Patrick raced a Dallara-Honda that was weighed half as much as her Nationwide car but had virtually the same 650 horsepower.

“I don’t think that means if you didn’t have a good Nationwide career, you’re going to jump over here and kick everybody’s a–,” Zipadelli said. “But she does a good job in the Cup cars with the increased power.”

Patrick said the Cup car isn’t easier to drive but has noticed a difference in slicing through the field.

“I definitely surprised myself, especially at Darlington,” Patrick said. “I remember catching guys like (Marcos) Ambrose or (Brad) Keselowski and thinking, ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing yet.’”

After the next seven Cup races, she hopes to have more of an inkling and less of the misfortune that the season has brought.

“It feels like it’s just been one of those years, and that’s why I can’t get mad,” she said. “It just seems if something can go wrong, it seems to, and it’s frustrating to everybody.

“But these NASCAR seasons are so long that if you let one weekend get you down, you just spiral out of control. You can look at it a completely different way and say, ‘I’ve got another weekend, and I can turn it around.’ There’s nothing healthy that comes from getting down and p—-d off about what’s gone wrong.”

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