Tom Bowles
Saturday February 13th, 2010

Danica Patrick's debut in NASCAR's Nationwide Series ended with a need for some of her own car insurance. Involved in a wreck on Lap 68, the front end of her No. 7 Chevrolet was torn to shreds, turning her hopes for a dazzling debut into the worst three-letter acronym in the sport: DNF.

But while a 35th-place finish isn't exactly what the doctor ordered, the medicine she took as a rookie at stock car's "AAA" level is bound to help her down the road. Here are five things we should all remember from Saturday, the latest edition of "As The Danica Turns" (Left, many many times):

1. She's not immune to being in the "Big One" -- just like everybody else. It didn't take long for Danica to relive her ARCA near-wreck experiences, with Trevor Bayne and Mike Bliss tangling right in front of her on Lap 8. But as chaos reigned around her, she followed Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pre-race plea to "trust her instincts" and it worked like a charm; she kept her cool, held her line, and magically escaped unharmed.

"The cars were just sliding down, so I just got on the brakes as hard as I could," she said on the radio. "I don't know how I didn't [hit anything], but I didn't."

But here's the catch in restrictor-plate racing: cars are so close together, at such high speeds, talent can only take you so far. You need Lady Luck on your side at all times, and the four-leaf clover flew out the window during the multi-car wreck that left Danica an innocent victim.

"In this one, I couldn't see anything again, I tried to slow down and we all hit," she said, learning a tough lesson about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. "That's the tough thing about this racing. I can see what they've said all along about these tracks, there was smoke that comes up and there was nowhere to go."

If there's a silver lining for Danica, it's that she wasn't alone. Just moments later, Earnhardt himself was turned to start a second straight major crash, flipping his No. 88 in a wreck so massive, it caused an 11-minute red flag. It's proof positive that tough breaks could happen to anyone, absolving her from blame in failing to finish.

2. She's an IndyCar girl living in a NASCAR world. The difference between open-wheel and stock car racing isn't just the cars -- it's the lingo, and Danica's still getting it down. Many times, she referred to Daytona's tri-oval as the "dogleg," while referring to her car as "oversteering" instead of "breaking loose" coming out of turn 4. It's like the British speaking their version of English in the U.S.; every once in awhile, there's a word that pops out we'd never use over here.

There's also the not-so-simple matter of the rules. After the first caution, the IndyCar star had no clue whether the restarts were single or double-file (answer: double-file), then struggled with where to line up behind the pace car under the next caution. It's those subtle differences that should take time to iron out; but until then, she's proving why there's a yellow stripe plastered to that back bumper.

3. Drafting is not her forte -- yet. Plate racing's unlike anything Danica's ever experienced in IndyCar, the slipstream of the draft naturally increasing your speed and upsetting the handling around other cars. Throughout the early part of the race, that caused her to make two crucial mistakes. At first, she'd pull out of the draft in order to keep the No. 7 car stable, costing her speed as she ran "by herself" without the benefit of a big pack.

"It's almost like I get up behind [another car] and then I get the aero push," she explained. "If I drop back a car length or two and get a little lower than [the car in front of me], I feel 10 times better."

It may have helped her car control, but it cost her precious speed that put her far behind the leaders almost instantaneously. Most importantly, when she did try and pass she failed to realize the cardinal rule of drafting: don't take too long to pass a guy side-by-side if the single-file pack in front of you is pulling away.

"I feel like we're losing [the draft]," she said early on in the race when fighting Danny Efland at the back of the pack. "So I'm just going to tuck in behind someone ... or he should let me go."

"When that happens, neither one of you have any help," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. reminded her, playing the role of teacher in this exchange. "So when that happens, roll out of the throttle, get on his bumper, and push him. You're trying to catch the pack in front of you."

It was an elementary lesson Danica didn't learn immediately -- she went a lap down before getting it back through NASCAR's Lucky Dog rule -- but just before her wreck she had cracked the top 25 once again after fading from her 15th starting spot. Hanging on inside the lead draft, it seemed there was subtle improvement before that multi-car wreck wiped it all out in an instant.

"The car was finally where I liked it, " she claimed. "And I was confident as a driver that I could run in the pack."

4. Eury is the perfect crew chief for her. Many termed Danica and Eury as the "Odd Couple" this week, with her high-maintenance style the ying to Eury's laid-back Southern yang. In fact, the two have such different accents you wondered if they would even understand each other on the radio. But if Saturday was a glimpse into their future, it was clear Eury's the calm, guiding influence this rookie needs as she makes her stock car transition. The crew chief's attention to detail kept his driver focused on the task at hand, reminding her gently of everything from pit-road speed, to gauges, to how to act in the draft. Some drivers like silence on the radio, but it was clear Eury's constant talking made an impact, as the fiery Patrick never so much as raised her voice on the radio all day long.

5. She'll always command attention -- no matter what she does. Back on Wednesday, I saw something I figured was virtually impossible: Danica walking through the Nationwide garage without getting bothered by anyone. But her solitude fizzled long before the race began and during pre-race ceremonies a writer friend joked "Danica Patrick is the Barack Obama of NASCAR." That whole "hope-y, change-y thing," as Sarah Palin might say, is the reason so many chronicle her every move, with hopes she'll enter stock-car racing's elite -- and it's rubbed off on her peers. Michael Waltrip and Juan Pablo Montoya were among a long line of drivers who sought her out this week, all of them pulling for success on Saturday. That attraction lasted on pit road long after she pulled off the grid, with the crowd on pit lane higher than any race we've seen at Daytona in the recent past.

But perhaps the funniest Danica moment of the day was when her car turned into the outside wall. As if the fire alarm was pulled, 75 percent of the media center got up and started running out the door to be the first in line to grab an interview. The only problem was, there were so many at her interview session, it got limited to two quotes and a simple statement about the wreck. It was yet another way for racing's PR goddess to control the spin from her latest adventures -- ones that have no signs of stopping anytime soon.

"I can tell you that I'll be a lot more confident and prepared for next year," she said, speaking in a tone that made IndyCar cringe. "This is some really difficult racing."

Yet through it all, racing's Golden Girl was having fun, putting her in position for a long-term future in this sport -- if she can only get the hang of it.

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