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Hard lessons learned, Patrick appears happy for IndyCar return

LEEDS, Alabama -- Perhaps "Danica Mania" is turning into "Danica Fatigue" after Danica Patrick's return to the IZOD IndyCar Series this week left her so upset that she fled the garage area with an angry scowl late Thursday evening. The fact she had to board a private jet and fly to Las Vegas to be ready for Friday morning's NASCAR Nationwide Series practice session probably didn't help her mood.

Patrick has been running on "high revs" ever since showing up at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 4 for Daytona 500 Media Day. Since that time she had an impressive stock car debut with a sixth-place finish in the ARCA race, decided to make her NASCAR debut the following week at Daytona only to crash and finish 36th, and then head to Fontana, Calif., where she finished 31st, three laps down last Saturday.

Even while at Fontana, Patrick looked forward to returning to her full-time job at Andretti Autosport and appeared upbeat earlier this week when she made her IndyCar Series return for the annual preseason test session, which this year was held at the spectacular Barber Motorsports Park.

By the time the two-day session concluded, though, Patrick's eyebrows were furrowed and she had a scowl on her face as she stormed through the paddock. Patrick was 18th out of 21 drivers in the test session with a fast lap of 115.786 miles per hour, compared to the fastest driver in the test, Will Power's 118.502 mph.

A more telling sign of Patrick's troubles lay in the fact that she was also smoked by rookie driver Simona de Silvestro, who ran a fast lap of 115.072 mph.

"I'm disappointed with our times, but we were able to gather a lot of data that I think will be beneficial for the season," Patrick said. "As a driver you hate having bad days."

It's obvious that Patrick had plenty of time to think about her disappointing return to IndyCar and what awaits her this weekend on her long flight to Las Vegas.

1. Maybe jumping back and forth between two totally different race cars is a bigger challenge than she ever expected. Patrick understood that her transition to NASCAR would be difficult but she could always look forward to the car that suits her best -- the Andretti Autosport IndyCar. But maybe all that time in the JR Motorsports Chevrolet has thrown her off her rhythm. While team owner Michael Andretti wasn't happy with any of his four drivers, Patrick was far and away the slowest of this quartet.

"We're a little behind and we have to figure it out," Andretti said. "I'm a little disappointed, I'll tell you that. We have to pick it up. We still have a lot of work to do. We need to get it closer. Danica struggled a bit and I don't know what the answer is to that. She was OK earlier in the day but struggled a bit in the afternoon."

While Andretti has begrudgingly allowed Patrick a chance to run a limited NASCAR schedule, and pretty much stayed out of her way this month, he is among the few who hasn't jumped to the conclusion that her time in the stock car may have messed up her feel for the IndyCar.

"I think everybody is going to read something into that but I don't think that is the problem," Andretti said. "We just haven't given her the car that she needs."

Patrick continues to believe, however, that driving a stock car can actually help her improve in IndyCar, even though it didn't appear that way this week.

"When I was talking to my engineer Eddie Jones (in IndyCar) I told him everything I learned in IndyCar, and now I'm glad I can come back here and say this is what I have learned over there and let's apply that here," Patrick said.

Still, Patrick admits she has tried to take in so much in such a short period of time that it's a challenge to keep it straight.

"I'm at a one-day-at-a-time situation through this weekend, any way," Patrick said. "I was in Daytona for two weeks, then a week in Los Angeles, then the race, and now I'm here (in Alabama) and then off to Las Vegas. I have to keep it one day at a time."

2. After finding satisfaction by finishing a NASCAR race last week, at Las Vegas she needs to finish in the top 30 and try to be on the lead lap. This may be difficult for Patrick because racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway may be more of a challenge than California Speedway. Instead of a 2-mile oval, it's a 1.5-mile, high-banked track that rewards the handling of a race car along with a driver's skill. Patrick discovered the draft at Daytona could help her hang on to faster cars and remain on the lead lap, but if she doesn't hit her mark at Las Vegas, it won't be long before she starts getting lapped.

But let's keep this in perspective -- she is not running for the Nationwide Series championship, so points don't matter. And forget about winning because it's way too early in her NASCAR career to consider that a possibility.

She needs to use Saturday's race as another learning experience, to do whatever it takes to stay on the lead lap. Otherwise, she's going to leave Las Vegas with the same ticked off look that she had when she left the IndyCar test on Thursday.

3. Danica is playing both sides of the fence. When Patrick speaks to the NASCAR media, she subtly downplays IndyCar, saying the car has so much downforce that she can hug the white line while a stock car is a driving challenge. But when she returns to IndyCar, she has a much different explanation of a stock car and it's not exactly flattering.

"It doesn't do much very well because it is just a stock car," Patrick said. "It is very simple. It is 1970s technology and it is just old."

Prior to the test, Patrick referred to her car as "snappy."

"Being in an IndyCar is my comfort zone right now," she said. "I know what it needs to feel like. I know the car and the technical side and all the changes that are needed to make it better. Dropping a rear track bar in NASCAR, I don't know what that means. There is a level of comfort and confidence in IndyCar that I know what the car is supposed to feel like and I know the changes to get it there.

"There is a comfort level to come back to an IndyCar and read the setup sheet because at least I know what I'm talking about. It's such a foreign land for me over there (in NASCAR)."

4. She is a long way from wanting to join NASCAR full-time, if ever. Patrick has held true to her belief that she is trying NASCAR to see if she even likes it, that it doesn't necessarily mean that when her current contract at Andretti Autosport expires in two years that she is definitely leaving the IndyCar Series.

In fact, she believes that when it is time to make her next decision, it won't come down to money or media attention; it will come down to something much more important than that, at least to her.

"I've always made my decision about where I want to race based on my gut and where I emotionally want to be and what I'm ready to do and what kind of car I want to drive," Patrick said. "At the end of the day I perform best in a car when I want to be there and when I'm having fun. That is what drives me to make the decisions that I want to do."

This week, she didn't appear to be having fun in either car.

But Patrick also praised NASCAR because of the huge platform it has created, the ability to tell the stories and promote the drivers while the IZOD IndyCar Series has struggled in that regard.

"We have a long way to go to make this sport (IndyCar) more popular," Patrick said. "But to look at that versus this you have to understand that NASCAR starts at Daytona and IndyCar doesn't start at the Indianapolis 500, so there is a huge difference that there are more people that start off the season because it is Daytona and there is a set-up media already there because it is the Daytona 500.

"Some people do need to be reminded that I am an IndyCar driver. That just shows we are not reaching far enough and our sport is not mainstream enough. That is the battle that we've been fighting for some time now."

5. Always split a pair of 8s. No explanation necessary -- it's a Cardinal Rule of Las Vegas.

Hey, come to think of it, Las Vegas is a great place for Patrick's next race because it's obvious that what she is attempting to do by running both series is a career gamble.

Only time will tell if Patrick will hit the jackpot or have to cash in all of her chips.

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