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Danica Patrick looking forward to Daytona, going home to Indy

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

Danica Patrick's best finish of her Nationwide season has been a 12-place showing at Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- It's time to catch up with Danica Patrick as the Nationwide Series heads to Daytona International Speedway Friday night. While Patrick entered 2012 hoping to finish in the top-five in points, she hits the halfway point of the season ninth in the standings.

Patrick's first full season of Nationwide competition has seen its share of ups and downs. While she had just one top-10 (eighth at Texas) in her first 15 races, her best race was actually a 12th-place finish at Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Patrick believed her road course experience benefited her at Elkhart.

"It was good to start in the top-10 and run in the top five all day," she said. "I was very happy about running well and running fast. I said before the weekend ever started that I'm more interested in running well and having a good pace and learning than I was in the actual position that I finish in because if you are not fast and you don't learn you aren't going to get those, but if the pace continues to come up and I learn something every weekend the finishes will come."

She was running fourth on the final lap before she was punted off the track by 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, triggering a near international incident after the race.

While Villeneuve had to defend his actions to Patrick's crew chief Tony Eury, Jr., Patrick kept her cool to the surprise of many who expected to see one of her trademark outbursts.

"I think he said he got pushed in the grass," Patrick told SI.com before last week's race at Kentucky Speedway. "I saw it right after the race on TV and I didn't go back and watch it again after that. It didn't look like he was in the grass when he hit me. "You know what, when I was younger and looking at drivers that I thought were really great that is what I thought of Jacques. He was very quick to accomplish things in CART and the Indy 500 and then Formula One. I looked up to that and I looked up to him.

Patrick's demanding schedule shows no sign of slowing down as she faces stops at two of racing's most historic tracks in July: Daytona and Indianapolis. She nearly won Daytona last year, getting pushed to the lead by the man who would become her Sprint Cup team owner this season, Tony Stewart. Patrick learned a great deal about two-car tandem racing last year and was among the leading contenders on the final lap before she was involved in a crash heading to the checkered flag.

That started a trend at Daytona for Patrick as she also crashed on the last lap of her Gatorade Daytona Duel, was wadded up in a wreck in February's Nationwide race and crashed at the start of the second lap of this year's Daytona 500.

While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Patrick's favorite track, she has also developed an affinity for high-banked Daytona despite her recent wrecks at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

"I don't know what it is about it -- whether it's the pressure that comes with that or what, but I think about how fortunate I am to run at places like that," Patrick said. "A dream come true would be to win at both of them."

After Friday night's Nationwide contest Patrick moves on to the flat, one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway oval where she started 25th and finished 30th last year.

"That is the type of track where I struggle the most," Patrick said. "The car moves, slides, doesn't grip up very well and that is where I need the most improvement. My short track driving is getting better and the last step is that my flat short track gets better. It will be a challenging weekend. I feel like I'm synching very well with my team. Tony Eury, Jr. and I are working together. He has a grasp of what I need that makes me feel comfortable and drive the car. Hopefully, we start off on the right foot and that is the way good weekends come."

The following week Patrick moves on to her home track at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile, high-banked oval where she has competed in two Nationwide races with a 10th-place finish last year and a 24th-place finish in 2010 and six IndyCar Series races in her career.

"Chicago is definitely my home track because I'm from Illinois," Patrick said. "I enjoyed it in IndyCars and it produced some good racing for the fans. There was a lot of passing going on and it was a high-speed chess match going on. It's not quite that intense in a stock car, but it's a track that is fast and has grip and lots of banking and those are the tracks I perform the best at so far in stock car racing."

And that leads Patrick into her dramatic return to Indianapolis for the inaugural Nationwide Series race on July 28.

Patrick admitted it was a little strange to turn on the television on Race Day for the 96th Indianapolis 500 and not be participating in the race. After all, Patrick had become such a focal point of every Indy 500 she had ever competed in, starting with her stunning rookie season in 2005 when she was the first female driver ever to lead laps in the Indy 500.

Patrick would finish fourth that day and, in the process, become a mainstream name enjoying celebrity status that far exceeded her actual on-track performance.

Every year after that, Patrick was a major story at Indy. It was her favorite race on her favorite track but that would end this year after she made the decision to leave the IndyCar Series to become a full-time Nationwide and part-time Sprint Cup driver.

By running a limited Cup schedule, Patrick was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Indy 500 Race Day instead of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She admits it was a surreal experience.

"To see the stands full, a beautiful sunny day, driver introductions and all of that was the point in time I felt I wanted to be there then," Patrick admitted. "But I'm very happy with where I'm at and what I'm doing. I had a race that night to go for. It was on to business after that."

Patrick didn't get to see the entire race because of a Coca-Cola appearance at CMS, so she missed the middle portion of the Indy 500. But she made sure she was there at the end to watch the climactic final laps of a race that saw an Indy 500 record 34 lead changes among 10 different drivers.

From listening to Patrick talk about watching the Indy 500 on television it was easy to understand how much she missed competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Getting a chance to race in the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis will be like a homecoming in many ways for Patrick.

"Part of me definitely feels it is one of the home tracks for me. I have spent the most amount of time there and especially because my family lives there now," Patrick said. "The amount of laps that I've run around there definitely helped me about the small details about the track surface and things like that. I think it will help for those things. But driving an IndyCar and a stock car on the same track is quite different. Certain things become issues that may not have been issues before and your turn in is different so you may be driving over different bumps. It's a traditional racing line at Indy so that may be decent. If anything my love for that track and my feelings about it are what is going to make the big difference because it puts me in a good mood right off the bat."

Patrick admits that it was the 2005 Indianapolis 500 that put her career on the map and even though she has switched gears her path still goes to her favorite race track only in a car with fenders and a roof instead of front and rear wings.

And what is her favorite memory of Indy?

"Oh, '05 -- everything about it," she said. "It was back in the 3-1/2 week format. It was my first year there. I was fast every day. It was fun and it was all starting there. To almost grab the pole if not for a bobble in Turn 1 and then to have that chance to win at the end of the race was a good feeling. It was definitely my favorite memory.

"I think about it often and I watched the Indy 500 and my whole family lives in Indianapolis now," Patrick said. "I love everything about it and I have so many good memories and so many great experiences and I'm fortunate to have run well there most of the time. I definitely like that place."

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