Friday February 5th, 2010

That million-dollar smile stretched across her face, bright, wide and wonderful, as she hopped out of her No. 7 Chevy on Thursday afternoon, midway through her first practice session in a stock car. Her makeup still on from a morning Q-and-A session with several hundred members of the media, Danica Patrick talked to her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., for a few moments in the Daytona garage, then bounded toward an acquaintance who stood a few feet away.

"I love this," Patrick said. "I think it's going to be good. I was going about 180 mph out there, which, honestly, felt a little slow."

Patrick didn't pace the field during the ARCA practice on Thursday -- she finished deep down on the final speed chart and finished 12th on Friday -- but she's clearly becoming more comfortable behind the wheel of a stock car. After spending her entire racing career driving lighter, smaller, faster open-wheel vehicles, Patrick will make her stock car debut on Saturday afternoon in a 200-mile ARCA race at Daytona. It is, unquestionably, the most anticipated ARCA race in the 57-year history of the series, which is essentially NASCAR's version of single-A ball.

Patrick's expectations -- rightly -- are modest. "I never put a number figure out there of where I want to finish, but what I'm really looking for is just getting more comfortable out there," she says. "I'm really just trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can."

"This isn't an overnight deal," says Jeff Gordon. "It will take time for Danica to figure out how to get these cars around the track. Look at the other drivers from Indy. For the most part, they struggle to adapt to driving these bigger cars. But trust me: Danica has talent. She proved that in IndyCar."

On Saturday, Patrick should be able to run near the front. Driving the No. 7 Chevy for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, Patrick's equipment should be the class of the field. But ARCA races are always tricky for someone like Patrick, who is trying to prove her stock car bona fides.

There are generally three types of ARCA drivers: The Old Pros -- drivers who have A-list talent but never got a shot at the big time; The Weekend Warriors -- drivers who have day jobs but still cling to the dream; and the Up-And-Comers -- drivers who are young and inexperienced and simply searching for seat time.

So, given the eclectic mix of drivers, it shouldn't be a surprise that ARCA races at Daytona usually turn into a festival of crashes. And this is exactly what I think will happen on Saturday. Patrick and Eury anticipate this as well, and so expect Eury to tell Patrick to blaze to the front as soon as the green flag falls. Patrick then will try to stay there -- testing her ability to "ride the draft," as they say at the superspeedway -- and keep out of harm's way.

Make no mistake: There will be more than one wreck in the race that will show up on ESPN. But here's another thing I think you'll see on the highlights: Danica in Victory Lane.

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