Bruce Martin
Saturday February 20th, 2010

FONTANA, Calif. -- Track president Gillian Zucker likes to bill this weekend as "NASCAR's trip to Hollywood," but there isn't anything Hollywood about Auto Club Speedway, which sits amidst the decaying remains of the old Kaiser Steel Mill. This place is about as earthy as it gets, with the race track built upon a remediated site of toxic waste from when the Inland Empire factories belched out smoke and soot in the 1940s and 1950s.

Personally, as desolate as this track has become, I think they should rename it "Gillian's Island" because at times it can look deserted. Be that as it may, this is where the Danica Patrick parade makes its next stop, about an hour east of Pasadena, and here are five things I'll be watching for as Danica-mania hits the West Coast for Saturday evening's Nationwide race.

It's important for Patrick to finish because she needs seat time if she expects to get the hang of it in NASCAR. Keep in mind that after next weekend's Nationwide race in Las Vegas, she will disappear from NASCAR until making a re-appearance at New Hampshire on June 26. (Yes, for all of you who want more Danica, you'll have to watch her in the IZOD IndyCar Series races, beginning with the season-opener in Brazil on March 14.)

"Finishing is always the goal," Patrick said after Friday's practice, where she was 27th quick. "I need laps. I need to get familiar with how the car changes from the beginning to the end of a run. I'm going to be surprised how the car slides around during a run and that will have to be a normal expectation level. I also have to be comfortable with pit stops to make the car better."

It would help Patrick's cause if she were to bring the car home to the checkered flag in both of the upcoming races. That way she'd fully understand the length and nature of driving stock cars on these big ovals, as she tries to figure out if she one day wants to join NASCAR full time. And that's to say nothing of what finishing a race would do for her credibility.

The 2.0-mile Auto Club Speedway (previously known as California Speedway) is long and wide. There are multiple grooves a driver can run, which is something Danica has to learn on the fly. The track is also fast because the engines are at the rev limit, cranking out horsepower and straining for speed.

Another interesting aspect to California and its sister track at Michigan is the field immediately spreads out. Since Patrick isn't running for the Nationwide Series title, it doesn't matter if she finishes fifth or 35th. How she handles the grooves, however, could determine that.

"I haven't run in traffic too much," Patrick said of this track. "There is a difference running behind people here as opposed at Daytona. At Daytona, you can run behind people solidly but here you get the air taken away from you. But there is a lot of room out there, plenty of lanes and plenty of places to go so it is more traditional from a passing standpoint. What will give you a car to pass that is not trouble in traffic is to have something underneath you that you believe in, that you can hustle around the track. That will make the biggest difference."

Patrick would like to have a car that drives flat out but realizes there are things in the stock car she isn't m takes time to happy with. That is why working with the team takes time to develop a setup that works.

"The tough thing for me is I don't know how it is supposed to feel," Patrick said. "Until the car is right I can't have an expectation level. I don't have any of those answers at this point. From my experience, it just takes time."

My guess is that she will because Patrick packs plenty of punch in her 5-foot-1 frame. She's a workout buff, spending hours training and going for runs with her husband, Paul Hospenthal.

Moreover, the Nationwide cars actually have power-steering -- something the IndyCar Series machines do not. And remember, she's been muscling IndyCars around the road courses at Watkins Glen International and Infineon, as well as the street circuits at St. Petersburg and Long Beach for the past five years.

Sure, her schedule seems packed -- two weekends at Daytona, followed by Saturday's race in Fontana, then IndyCar preseason practice next week, and a third Nationwide race in Las Vegas. But this is what drivers get paid to do. That Danica's combining both series for the first time is what makes it interesting and possibly physically draining.

And, she looks forward to the challenge.

"We're going to get our first real look at how bouncing back between the cars will go," Patrick said. "I tested an IndyCar a few weeks ago and I thought, `Wow, this car is snappy! It turns really quick!' I'm sure it will happen again to me next week at the IndyCar test but I'm sure I will be comfortable within a lap or two."

It didn't take long for driver egos to get bruised at Daytona. Wise-cracks began to creep into television interviews during practice and after the race. And when the mass of media swarmed Patrick in the garage area after she crashed, only to virtually ignore Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after his car hit the backstretch wall and slid on its roof down the track, well, let's just say the disparity didn't go unnoticed.

"I looked at all the cameras here today and figured Danica Patrick must be racing this weekend," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said Friday.

It helps in this sport to have some friends in the garage area and in the heat of battle. Patrick is a professional and has an engaging personality. She can talk about the technical aspects of the race with any driver or engineer in the garage area. That trait alone will earn her the trust and friendship of some drivers in the long run, but for now the media isn't doing her any favors -- not when some envious drivers are looking at her as an overrated personality who's stealing away their attention and sucking all of the oxygen out of the series.

But, it is impossible to consider Patrick as, "One of the guys."

"I get to be girly every now and then and get dressed up as anyone who saw Jimmy Kimmel Live last night can attest to," Patrick said of her appearance on the ABC late-night show. "There are a lot of things that benefit from this; not just for myself. It puts more eyes on the race, so I don't mind it at all.

"I'm always happy whenever any other driver is out there showing their personality. That is how the fans choose their drivers to cheer for. People are talking about NASCAR right now, which is a good thing. But my job is to earn it and I haven't had enough experience in it yet."

Patrick's ARCA debut was the highest-rated ARCA race of all time by 60 percent. And last Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Daytona drew a 3.2 rating, which means 4.2 million people watched the ESPN2 live telecast as the most-viewed Nationwide Series race ever on cable.

Saturday's Nationwide Series race starts at 6 p.m. Eastern (3 p.m. PST), which could boost potential viewers. But this isn't Daytona and it isn't Patrick's NASCAR debut. In fact, with the evening Olympics broadcast, college basketball and the NBA to battle with, NASCAR is bound to get a lower rating. How low is the question.

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