Future is Now
Having NASCAR heavyweights such as Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart rooting you on in a budding stock-car career -- not to mention four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, who has a double-handful of NASCAR starts on his resume -- would be a solid vote of confidence.
When you add the self-confidence and proven racing ability of Danica Patrick, who's in the final three-race tune-up for a full-time Nationwide Series schedule in 2012, the future certainly looks promising.
And even though Patrick just announced last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway that her 10-race 2012 Sprint Cup program would begin with Daytona's Speedweeks and the Daytona 500, after two seasons of juggling IndyCar and stock-car responsibilities, more than anything Patrick's eagerly anticipating a one-dimensional, stock-car future.
"I'm really looking forward to focusing on [NASCAR], to building on the weekends and having my comfort level be at a normal level every time I get in the car, from the first lap," Patrick said. "Because as we know, those first few laps of the weekend are the fastest ones; so it's nice to feel good when you get out there.
"Even [last Friday] when I got out there, the first three or four laps I was just building up because I'm not one to go out and just go flat-out and see what happens -- I build up. So it's going to be nice for me, as a methodical driver, to be able to be comfortable from the start."
Speedweeks may be the biggest hurdle for that. According to Earnhardt, her Nationwide co-owner at JR Motorsports, "the biggest hurdle" Patrick will face as she moves toward the Cup Series full time, probably in 2013, is the divergent characteristics of the two cars.
"I haven't drove a lot of Nationwide races in the last couple of years, but the ones that I have drove, I find that that [Nationwide] car is a lot easier to drive than the [new car] at the Cup level -- a great amount easier," Earnhardt said. "I feel like her biggest challenge will be the frustrations with how the [new Cup car] drives and how you're trying to get it to handle and do different things.
"There's just some things this car is not going to do. There's some things that no matter what your crew chief tries to change, there's gains you cannot make. It's going to do some things you don't like and you're going to just have to put up with it and learn how to drive it that way. That's one of the things that I think probably will be difficult."
But not as difficult as was swapping back and forth between stock cars and open-wheel cars, Patrick acknowledged. Patrick's last full-time IndyCar event came on Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And even though she said she'd like to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in the future, she said Friday none of those discussions had occurred.
"I think the bigger detriment was on my NASCAR stuff," Patrick said of the 13 Nationwide races she interspersed with IndyCar last year and the nine she did intermingled with open-wheel this year. "The springtime break was March through June that I wouldn't be in the [Nationwide] car and that's a long time. And not only that, when I would do only one [Nationwide race] a month -- when we went to Kansas a few weeks ago I hadn't been on a mile-and-a-half since Vegas, at the beginning of the year.
"In the middle of the summer I went to Montreal to do a road course. So sometimes I haven't been to a certain kind of track in six months. So I think that the biggest [adjustment] hit came on my NASCAR stuff."
So right now, Patrick said the perfect scenario is rounding out her 2011 season with the final three Nationwide Series races, including an 11th-place run last Saturday at Texas.
"I think it's great to have these three races at the end that's going to lead into the next year because we're kind of getting ahead of the game for the start of the season next year by implementing certain things and trying different things that we'll keep from the end of this year to next year and beyond," Patrick said, "so that we can start off strong, because as Tony [Eury Jr., her Nationwide crew chief] says, the first 10 races are the whole championship.
"Isn't that funny? It's just like school, when you can take a test and you get a bad grade on your first test, it seems like you never get ahead again -- and it seems like when you start off well you can have bad weekends, but it just doesn't seem to affect you.
"So I'm with him, and I think those first 10 races are going to be really important and it's nice to have the end of this year to be able to know that there's nothing else happening but what I know I need to do [with her NASCAR programs]."
Eury is part of JR Motorsports' ownership group and was an integral part of his cousin Earnhardt's two series championships and most of his Cup success, too. He's been one of Patrick's staunchest supporters. Eury is the only stock-car crew chief she's ever known and Patrick wouldn't have it any other way.
Patrick just laughed when she was asked if "Tony Jr." had attained "big-brother status" yet.
"I just feel real lucky to have him, because not only does he have a tremendous amount of experience, he's a great crew chief," Patrick said. "He makes the car better. I mean, it's so nice as a driver to go out there and say 'yeah, that's it, that worked.' And that doesn't always happen.
"You have to have a talent [as a crew chief] and the ability to do that and to feel out a driver -- especially with our limited amount of running and communication and consistency. I'm sure it's been a challenge for him, having other people in the car, too."
Patrick said working with Tony Jr. and his dad, "Pops" Eury, was an instant benefit, but her owner is a huge advantage.
"I also feel lucky on the other side of things, with the media and with the exposure," Patrick said. "Working with Dale Jr., it doesn't really get any bigger than that, so having [Eury Jr.] comfortable with all of that and he knows how to keep it under control and keep the guys under control -- to keep everything together because he has that experience -- is a good thing."
Earnhardt's as enthused as his driver.
"I think she can achieve anything she wants," Earnhardt said this week. "I think she'll be able to get where she wants at the Cup level. I think there will be a lot of attention -- a lot of attention and pressure. But she knows all about that. She's been aware of that her entire career and dealt with it her entire career. I don't see how that could be a problem."
Patrick said adjusting to Darlington might be one of her biggest challenges, But seriously, she said her acceptance as a NASCAR competitor has been about what she expected, and will only get better.
"I think that [acceptance] comes with running with people, and when you don't run that many races, then you don't always get the opportunity to race with certain cars out there," Patrick said. "Definitely I haven't raced with the very frontrunners a ton, because I haven't been running in the top five during the whole race, to run with Carl Edwards or Kyle [Busch] or Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.].
"Those are guys that I don't run with quite as much, but I think that all takes time. And for the people that I run against, I think that as long as they know that they can't push me around -- and that comes with racing with each other -- it's good."