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Patrick attracts crowd at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- SpeedWeeks 2010 officially began at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, including practice for Saturday's Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. But this isn't your father's ARCA race, not with IndyCar regular Danica Patrick making her stock car debut here. With her in the field, it'll be the most anticipated, most watched ARCA Series race in history. Here then are five things we learned on her first day in Daytona.

1. She hopes Friday is better than Thursday. Patrick's practice session was a signal that she has a lot to learn. She was 17th quick with a lap of 180.484 miles per hour after running 29 laps in the marathon practice session. Patrick was four spots behind the fastest of six women in the field, Alli Owens, who was 13th with a lap at 180.985 mph.

Interestingly, earlier in the day, Leilani Munter, who has competed in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, was decked in her green-and-black firesuit and told a nearby reporter, "You know, I'm not Danica Patrick, don't you?"

Patrick's IndyCar nemesis Milka Duno -- of the "towel in your face" fame at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2008 -- is also entered in the ARCA race as are Jennifer Jo Cobb and Jill George.

2. Patrick is not nervous about the transition to stock cars. "I haven't really had a chance to really think about that," Patrick said. "This next month is going to be really busy; there is a lot going on. I'm just trying to make sure my head is on straight so I am learning to deal with those distractions.

"I would like to think that I've learned some respect out there and the only way to do that is to get out there and race with them. If somebody does something that I don't like, they have to expect to get something in return. And I have fenders now, so that is pretty exciting."

3. She attracts quite a crowd. There was more attention on Patrick during Daytona 500 Media Day than on four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. But even she was surprised to see such a huge crowd awaiting her.

"I know we are way over a week out from the Daytona 500, so this is big," Patrick said. "I've felt this before and I'm very flattered that I can still be in a position where people are interested in me. I've also been blessed where a lot of people are writing about me and it feeds the system. I'm lucky to be in this position."

The only other driver who came close to matching her crowd was fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had the line of the day when was asked if he had to win to be considered the central figure in NASCAR. "Apparently not," he quipped.

Even though Patrick drives for the JR Motorsports team that Earnhardt owns along with his sister Kelley and cousin Tony Eury Jr., he and Patrick don't talk often.

"I've only talked to Danica once in the last six months," Earnhardt said. "I don't even know how she did today. She is working with Kelley and Tony Jr. and those people who are in contact with her. She don't need too many people in her ear talking to her, giving her a whole bunch of crap to think about. She has been around racing a long time and she is smart enough to know exactly what she had gotten herself involved in. She doesn't need everybody telling her what is good for her. That kind of stuff annoys the crap out of me, when I have six or seven people trying to tell me what is right and what my next move should make.

"She seems to be pretty smart. Just hope we give her a good car, and when she mashes the gas it puts a smile on her face. As long as she is having fun out on the race track, I will enjoy that part of it."

4. To hear her tell it, this isn't about increasing her brand awareness. "I'm here because I want to race in NASCAR right now," Patrick said. "Let's face it, the opportunity to drive in NASCAR has come up many different times and I never did it. This time, I said, `Wow, I think the racing looks really fun.'"

Patrick said she likes oval racing and believes there is less of that on the IndyCar schedule than in past seasons, which seems odd considering she came from a road course background, including spending several years racing in England as a teenager.

"I was so disappointed over the years to see the oval tracks that we've lost in IndyCar," she said.

At one point during her question-and-answer period, an exuberant radio announcer thrust a microphone at her from behind and hit Patrick on the shoulder. She stopped in mid-sentence and said, "Hey, can you not rest that on my shoulder?"

Patrick was able to get her point across without appearing mean-spirited, but she isn't afraid to show some fury, either.

"I've never been afraid to be honest," Patrick said. "I will always be me; I will always be emotional and I will always show a bit of my temper because I really care. When racing goes well, nothing else really matters because it controls your life. It is important for us to have emotions. That's why we watch sports -- we want to see someone happy and we want to see someone mad."

5. Patrick and JR Motorsports will decide on Monday if she will run the Nationwide race at Daytona next week. The only driver from JR Motorsports who will definitely start the Feb. 13 Nationwide Series race at Daytona is Earnhardt. The second car will be driven by Kelley Bires or possibly Patrick. Otherwise, Patrick will make her first Nationwide Series start at Fontana, Calif., on Feb. 20.

"It's going to be a lot of the feeling that I have," Patrick said. "If I have a great race, maybe I wasn't challenged in some particular way. If I don't finish up front and I came through the day and feel good about what I've learned that might be good enough. It depends on how I feel afterwards."

"We'll announce whether I do it or not on Monday. Nobody is putting pressure on me. I just want to be smart. The Nationwide race at Daytona is the biggest race of the year in this series. There are guys out there that are running for the championship and with all the Cup guys out there, too, it's been recommended that it's not the best idea to be out there in that race. I'm not going to ignore the people that have given me advice."

While Earnhardt knows he will be in the Nationwide race, he offered his opinion on who his teammate should be on Feb. 13.

"There's a part of me that hopes Danica does so well in the ARCA race that she gets to drive, too," Earnhardt said. "I hope that Kelly Bires gets to drive, too. We are in a tough situation financially, and to bring a car down here to run is about $150,000 at its cheapest, and we can't afford to do that. We can't afford to have three teams here, so it's coming down to make the best of the situation."

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