Danica seeks respect in NASCAR

AP Sports WriterFebruary 5, 2010 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Come in like a wrecking ball and take out half the field on the first lap, and Danica Patrick's stock car racing experiment will screech to a halt.

Drive defensively and just try to stay out of the way, and she'll be dismissed as a pushover.

Despite her standing as an IndyCar star and possibly the most successful female race car driver ever, Danica Patrick knows she must make a good first impression in NASCAR. Still, she made it clear during Thursday's Daytona 500 media day that she doesn't plan on being pushed around in the process.

"If somebody does something to me that I don't like, you have to expect that you get something in return," Patrick said. "And I have fenders now, so that's pretty exciting."

After years of speculation about her potential move from IndyCar to NASCAR, Patrick is dipping her toe in stock cars while continuing to race in IndyCar this season.

She isn't trying to qualify for the Daytona 500 this year; she'll start smaller, making her debut in Saturday's ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway.

ARCA is a lesser-known series that uses similar cars to NASCAR, and the annual ARCA race at Daytona is known for its spectacular and frequent crashes -- something Patrick apparently just found out about.

"I recently heard that, that it's a crashfest," Patrick said, laughing. "And I didn't know that. But, OK, now I do. I think that makes me just realize that I need to be smart out there."

Hey, at least they told her before the green flag fell.

And there certainly will be more surprises once Patrick hits the track.

Patrick is encouraged by her initial experiences in stock cars; she did an ARCA test at Daytona in December and recently practiced pit stops with her crew in Charlotte. Now she's paying attention to the details, trying to figure out how to keep her car under NASCAR's pit road speed limit; in IndyCar, she said, you just press a button.

Above all, she's being careful not to set unrealistic expectations.

"I think at the end of the day, it'd be nice to have a good result," Patrick said. "But it's going to probably be more off the feeling that I have and how little mistakes that I made and how comfortable with the different situations."

After Saturday's race, Patrick and her team -- which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- must decide whether Patrick will run the Nationwide series race at Daytona next Saturday. Patrick expects a decision by Monday, and it doesn't sound like an automatic yes.

"You know, it's been recommended that it's not the best idea to start there," Patrick said. "And I'm not going to ignore the people that have given me advice."

Fellow drivers seem to be viewing Patrick's arrival with an open mind.

Of the handful of female drivers who have tried to make it big in racing, Jeff Burton said Patrick has the most potential.

"Her ability to be successful or not successful doesn't depend on her being a 'her,"' Burton said. "There is no reason that a women cannot be successful in this sport. There is no reason in the world. (In) my eyes, she has brought the most talent to the table so far."

Former driver Kyle Petty said Patrick is doing the right thing by announcing her refusal to back down on the track, likening NASCAR to a group of schoolkids playing in a sandbox.

"She's got her mind screwed on straight," Petty said. "You have to establish your piece of the sandbox when you go play in the sandbox. And you can't just walk into a new sandbox and start knocking people out of their place. You can't be overly aggressive, but you can't let them say, 'Yeah, we're not going to give you any of the sandbox."'

Patrick embraces the aggressive streak in her personality, one that occasionally led to confrontations during her rise to prominence in IndyCar. She's also working on being more diplomatic.

In that spirit, she'll show respect to all of her new fellow stock car drivers on the track -- unless they give her a reason not to.

"You walk this very fine line of being kind of more of a wimp out there, and taking their (garbage) and not doing anything about it, and also being too overly aggressive and kind of making yourself look silly by it, too," Patrick said. "You know, I had to do it in IndyCar and I would like to think that I've earned all their respect out there. And it's going to come with racing with some of these guys."

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