Tom Bowles
Sunday February 28th, 2010

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas is a town built for the 21st century: instant gratification. With 25 cents and one pull of the lever, there's no such thing as patience; you'll know if a slot machine makes you the next rags-to-riches story in seconds.

So it's fitting Sin City was the backdrop for Danica's "Rush to Judgment Day," the final one before her NASCAR debut took a hard-earned four-month break. But after Patrick's three Nationwide starts, two wrecks, and no finish inside the top 30, everyone's ready to leave the casino empty-handed thinking she's already a lost cause. Her last dime (for now) got spent on a midrace crash in Vegas, where a tangle with Michael McDowell destroyed her Chevrolet and assured an early exit back to the IndyCar series.

"It would have been nice to have a decent finish," she said of her stock-car stint, recognizing 36th capped off a trio of ugly statistics. "I feel bad for everybody that worked hard. I'm not the type of person that crashes cars."

Or is she? Twisted sheet metal proved the hallmark of Danica's month-long stock-car stint. Only in Fontana did she leave with all four fenders intact. She's put together an average finish of 34th, which suggests to most, "Three strikes and you're out."

But the truth of the matter is this transition isn't that simple. Delving deeper, the first leg of her limited schedule in NASCAR (she returns in June) was filled with enough mixed messages that you can't give a final grade this early. Looking beyond the stat sheet, she improved her overall speed on-track in each of her three starts, peaking at Vegas, where she ran lap times equivalent to the 10 fastest cars before wrecking.

"I was feeling better and better and better all the time," she said, slowly moving up from her 37th starting spot to third and sitting in 24th at the time of her crash. "I was having a lot of fun here at a track that's smooth, and [crew chief] Tony [Eury], Jr. did a good job of bringing a car that gave me confidence from the first run out there."

It's that chemistry between her and Eury that could pay dividends down the road. The crew chief was on top of his game again Saturday, filled with reassurance every time his driver needed it. But perhaps the key move was to leave her out longer than most during a round of green-flag stops, pushing the No. 7 as high as third and giving his driver a brief taste of what it's like to run up front.

"It's nice to run up there and start trying to earn [other drivers'] respect," she said, gifted with a consolation prize sorely needed for her confidence. "I was feeling better and better all the time."

And so are the drivers around her. When race winner Kevin Harvick came up to lap Patrick, he even felt comfortable pointing out a better groove on the race track she could run on. A man well known to have a short fuse, Harvick's willingness to go out of his way for a rookie shows just how few feathers she's ruffled in the NASCAR garage.

"She's been very receptive and very open on asking questions," he said. "And I'll give anybody help if they ask. She's always wanted to know what she needs to do; she was running the bottom of the race track, and she needed to be running the top of the race track at that particular time."

It's those unsolicited tips that show the support system is there for her to improve; and better yet, she put that insight to work, cutting lap times by a tenth of a second or more. It's part of a slow but steady process of winning over her peers, so much so that even the wreck was passed off as her being the innocent victim.

"I take 100 percent responsibility," said McDowell, claiming he -- a lapped car on old tires -- should have known better. "It's just the closing rate [from Danica coming up behind him] was so much that there wasn't a whole lot of time to make a decision."

"She moved to the bottom, I closed the door [causing the wreck]. So completely, 100 percent my fault."

Good feelings don't erase all the issues going forward, of course. Qualifying is clearly a problem, as Danica would have missed Saturday's race without an owner's provisional locking her in. And the questions Harvick speaks of sometimes make her look like an amateur who's never even read the rulebook. Her latest gaffe was asking Eury on Saturday if she could pass on the restarts, one of the first things you learn in NASCAR 101: if a car slows up in front of you, you simply blow by them on the right.

But no rookie's been through this much scrutiny, particularly one who's raced in a completely different type of car. No one doubts she's been giving an "A" for effort; and while that's the type of thing that won't win you races, it also won't knock you out of the sport in three weeks.

"I am going to miss this," she said, insisting she'll be back, with testing between now and her next scheduled race the end of June. "I'll [still] be watching all the time, trying to pick up tips from anything I can. I'm proud of some things, I should be proud of everything, but that's just me as a competitor. I get frustrated easily."

It was another mixed message for a driver who clearly views her early time in NASCAR as an incomplete. And despite the urge to give a final grade ... so should we.

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