By Bruce Martin
February 12, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Because of a long, steady, torrential downpour on Friday, Danica Patrick had plenty of time to think about her first NASCAR Nationwide Series race, scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. Heading into it, the 5-foot-1, 27-year-old Patrick realizes it doesn't matter whether she scores a top-five finish or brings up the rear of the 43-car field, the ultimate goal is learning how to drive against a higher-class of competition than she battled in last Saturday's ARCA race and figuring out if she wants to join NASCAR fulltime one day.

Considering that drivers such as her mentor Tony Stewart, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., hotshot Kyle Busch, past champions Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick will be in the field, Patrick will be competing against some of the best drivers in the sport. What is she thinking as she heads into race?

"I think that I'm just going to have to stay calm and cool," said Patrick, who's starting 15th. "If the car is difficult to drive, I think the discipline will be to just keep it at the pace that I'm comfortable with, keep it in the race, try and work on it on the pit stops, just tune it in as much as possible. We have another hundred miles this weekend as opposed to [the 200] last weekend [in the ARCA race]. Then just staying calm out there. These guys are driving hard, for sure. Everybody is out there to prove themselves, to win races, as I've been hearing, take the trophy.

"I need to be ready for that. While I'm not as comfortable as they are with the car, its tendencies, what's happening. I just need to stay on my toes and learn the racing style, learn how these guys drive, learn some of their personalities out there, just kind of absorb it all, finish the race."

That's a great attitude for Patrick to have. Here are some other keys points to keep in mind as she heads into Saturday's race.

Patrick soaked in a bunch of knowledge in her stock car debut with ARCA, including how to drive back toward the front after getting knocked into the grass by Nelson Piquet Jr. on lap 53. She fell to 24th but raced back to fifth before finishing sixth at the end of the race.

"Last weekend for the ARCA race, I was really happy with that run. I was happy with the race," Patrick said. "I did make some mistakes, for sure. A couple of them I recovered from well. That shows me that I've learned some things, can handle these situations. But this is a whole 'nother ball of wax this weekend. This car is not as easy to drive. There are a lot of really great drivers out there, really great teams out there. Everybody is running close. You know, everybody wants to make that next step up to Cup.

"This is a much different situation for me. So I'm glad to be out there, though, because I really, really need the practice. My goal purely is to finish, just to finish the race, log 300 miles of practice. Everything I've done has been some preparation for the position that I'm in now. I'd have to say that I've been preparing for this since I was 10."

Any big name athlete has as many detractors as supporters (i.e. see how many people ripped Peyton Manning for his interception in the Super Bowl and ignored the otherwise fine game he played.) Patrick couldn't care less that she has to prove anything to anyone, including if she "belongs in NASCAR."

"If I spent all my time trying to prove to everybody I could drive a racecar, I would be out of energy," she said. "All I really need to do is keep my team happy, keep my crew chief happy, and keep myself happy, know that I'm pushing a limit. I can't really change people's minds. They have to watch and judge for themselves."

Complicating matters is that NASCAR drivers are a jealous breed because it is an ego-driven sport, and some of those egos are already being bruised by the attention Patrick is getting. To that she responds, "I don't by any means want to take away from the amazing drivers that are out there. That's not my mission, to be the big story. I, by no means, am trying to take anything away from anybody else, including the Daytona 500."

While some in the media are already speculating that Patrick is definitely leaving the IndyCar Series two years from now when her contract with Andretti Autosport expires, she cautions, "Not so fast." She emphasizes her mind is not made up and it's certainly too early to expect that decision.

"I can't deny that I really like driving the car," Patrick said. "I can't deny that it's really fun racing. Originally my big reason for wanting to come and drive stock cars was because I thought the racing looked fun, and now I know it is. I don't doubt there are going to be hard days, just like in IndyCar, where you just want to park it. You're just saving your life every corner. But all in all, these are really fun cars to drive. I love the racing. I love there's passing, I love there's side-by-side. Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it's fun for the fans, too, and they're important. And they're good shows."

Patrick loves the additional exposure and higher TV ratings in NASCAR. But deep inside of her soul, she also realizes she is an open-wheel racer at heart.

"I still very much enjoy IndyCar," she said. "I haven't been in the car but once since the end of last year, so it's been quite some time. But, I mean, there's really nothing like the Indy 500. That is such a cool event for anybody that hasn't been there. I'm sure most of you have, but...

"IndyCars are very much performance cars. They do what you ask when you ask it to. These are a little bit bigger. But the racing is very fun. I haven't made any decisions regarding which is my favorite or not. It's like having two kids: I can't pick."

When the time does arrive for Patrick to make her big decision, it may be completely out of her hands. With the level of attention and money that comes from NASCAR, she may not be able to afford to return to IndyCar.

The IndyCar Series made Patrick a star, but the way ESPN is promoting her NASCAR debut, you would think she has been driving go-karts the last five years. That said, the six-year IndyCar veteran believes in a residual way that the open-wheel series will benefit from her NASCAR involvement.

"I'm sure IndyCar is feeling some benefit from this," she said. "Their name has been said time and time again, in referring to me, what I've done, where I've come from. Shoot, I refer to IndyCar all the time. It's the only thing I have to refer to. I'll be talking to Tony Eury Jr. (crew chief) and I'll say, 'In an IndyCar this...' I say it all the time. That's all I have to go off of. It's where I came from. I'm sure it's being mentioned more than if an IndyCar driver wasn't out here."

Rest assured, officials and drivers from both series will be watching her debut on Saturday.

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