The Danica Patrick show came to New Hampshire this weekend, attempting a NASCAR breakthrough after going 35th, 31st, and 36th in her first three attempts. Racing's Most Popular female has taken plenty of lumps in her first turns behind the wheel of a stock car, making today's goal a simple one: stay out of trouble. Just keeping the car in one piece over 200 laps would have been a huge rookie accomplishment.
Too bad that proved Mission: Impossible within the first five minutes. A wreck just seven laps in left her limping home again, running 30th, five laps down after another difficult day. Just how steep is the learning curve ahead, and is there any silver lining to take away a year filled with futility? Here's a look at five things we can salvage from Danica's disastrous dip into the world of stock car racing:
1) God was not on Danica's side Saturday; he was busy hitting her driver's side door.
The lone female in the 43-car field wound up wrecked by religion - literally. Morgan Shepherd, an unsponsored 68-year-old veteran, promotes his faith by writing "Victory In Jesus" on the hood of his No. 89 Chevrolet. But when he slammed into the rear quarterpanel of Patrick's No. 7, their prayers for success both came to a screeching halt in seconds.
"Doesn't he get some kind of penalty for that or something?" said Patrick on the radio, clearly irritated. "Man, that sucks."
"[Danica] squeezed me a little bit and we got together," said Shepherd after the race, who claimed she was holding up traffic and taking his line away. "She just made it hard to pass. I wasn't the only one she was holding up; that's all there is to it."
"I was bumped sideways," the rookie claimed in response. "I tried to save it, then I just got on the brakes and tried to slow the car down once I couldn't catch it."
"At least the car wasn't so bad that I couldn't keep going."
But survival proved a small consolation prize. Crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. confirmed the front end was toed out (think: wheels out of alignment), and the team lost a lap after that initial spin. An already struggling Patrick was left battling a tight condition -- where the car won't turn in the corners and wants to head straight towards the wall - the rest of the day.
"I had a hard time slowing the car down," she said. "I don't know if maybe we lost some bite on the front end or something, with some front damage, cause it didn't have as much grip under braking."
It's the third time in four stock starts Patrick has spun at least once. Who's at fault for this one? It's hard to say, but it was telling after the race when Shepherd came over to apologize to the crew, their response was patting him on the back while basically saying, "No big deal." With no tempers flaring, it seemed both sides thought Patrick stuck her nose where it shouldn't have been.
2) Tony Eury, Jr. is the perfect coach to bring Patrick up to speed.
The cousin of NASCAR's reigning Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is proving to be the perfect fit for his open-wheel equivalent. Time and again, Eury proved the calm voice in Danica's ear, making sure the temperamental driver never lost her confidence or enthusiasm for being out there.
"Every time I go low, I just get more understeer," she complained at one point, struggling to pass backmarker Robert Richardson. "I can't pass him."
"Pass him up top," Eury said. "Set him up ... drive in a little deeper, and get a run on top of him."
The pep talk worked, his driver edging in front less than one lap later. It was just a small example of a level of communication that got so comfortable, Patrick never hesitated to ask her head wrench for tips or a few extra words of support. By the end of the day, that led to lap times that improved by nearly a second over when she started the race.
"I'm proud of her," he said afterwards, playing cheerleader even after the race was over. "I think she learned a lot."
3) Danica's learning to drive all over again.
Clearly, four finishes of 30th or worse prove how steep the learning curve is between open-wheel and stock car racing. From simple communication issues like saying "understeer," not "tight," to a failure to understand the wave around rule Patrick once again showed her naïveté at a completely different type of competition.
"Why would he hit my corner?" she said at one point, seemingly surprised stock cars could make contact without wrecking. It took a long, drawn out conversation with Eury to calm her down and explain everyone wasn't trying to wreck her; it was simply a technique people use to pass.
"Towards the last quarter of the race, I was starting to break down low, let the car slide up the track, and take my spot," she said. "Instead of trying to respect the lane. In IndyCars, you respect the lane that you're in because you can't touch. You'll either crash, or flip, or have something really bad happen. So it's breaking that reality of holding your lane that I'm learning."
"It's a bigger learning curve than most people think," added Eury. "[Compared to] the IRL, I'm going to think there's a lot of depth perception [issues]. It's a tough short track [to learn on]."
4) For better or worse, NASCAR is selling their soul to the Danica marketing machine.
Once again, Patrick's weekend at the track was as much about her off-track marketability as her on-track performance. Her Friday press conference ended as a circus sideshow, New Hampshire track president Jerry Gappens producing a pair of shoes as a gag gift -- it was a follow-up from a lobster one she got in January. ESPN filmed and aired a commercial with only Patrick appearing 60 times a day leading up to the race, and the television broadcast once again doubled as Danicavision -- even though she was never competitive.
For now, souvenir sales would indicate the public continues to ride the wave, although the U.S. World Cup competition may have crippled TV ratings. At the same time, the sport needs to be careful not to put all their eggs in one basket going forward. Anna Kournikova comes to mind as athletes that only lasted so long with a pretty face and some really good PR people. At some point, you have to live up to the hype.
Which brings us to our last point ...
5) IndyCars or stock cars? Danica's going to have to choose.
Following a disastrous NASCAR stint, Patrick started off her IndyCar season the same way. Until her sixth-place surprise at this year's Indy 500, she looked lifeless en route to just one top-10 finish in five starts.
The driver was quick to shrug off concerns racing elsewhere left her distracted. But some of stock car's best veterans know over the long-term, there's no way she can keep this going.
"Danica's challenge is big," said NASCAR's Jeff Burton on Friday. "To go from the car she is used to driving to these cars is a monumental task. For her to have long-term success, she has got to get in a seat for miles and miles and miles, and learn all the little things--all the buttons that you have to push to make these cars go fast."
"Ultimately, she'll have to make a decision -- can she do both?"
It's a good thing that choice doesn't need to come now. The way she's run so far in 2010, the answer could end up being "none of the above."