During introductions for last Saturday's Nationwide race at Daytona, it was no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr., voted NASCAR's most popular driver for the last eight years, received thunderous applause.
But there was another driver -- a little shorter, a little slimmer and, let's face it, a lot better-looking -- for whom the cheers were just as loud. Wearing shades and with her hair down past her shoulders, second-year NASCAR driver Danica Patrick waved to the cheering crowd. As the drivers headed to pit road for final photo-ops and conversations with their crew chiefs, the throng of photographers, reporters and fans was larger around her than it was around anyone. After spending a day around her at the track, it's clear that she's been called NASCAR's "it girl" for a reason.
A media darling and fan favorite since she took fourth in the 2005 Indy 500 and earned Rookie of the Year honors for the race and the IndyCar Series, Patrick's jump to NASCAR was a highly anticipated one. She signed with Earnhardt's team, JR Motorsports, in December 2009 and became an immediate asset to NASCAR in terms of the advertising dollars she brought in and the fans she attracted. According to Forbes, the 28-year-old Patrick, who made $12 million in total earnings and endorsements in 2010, was the fourth-highest paid female athlete last year, behind tennis players Maria Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams.
Now, with both her IndyCar contract with Andretti Autosport and her deal with JR Motorsports expiring after the 2011 season, she's out to show she can compete. In leading a lap (her fifth) and finishing a career-best 14th in the Nationwide race at Daytona, she did just that. "It was a fun race," said Patrick, standing in the shadow of her hauler, having made her way through a crowd of autograph seekers. "I felt like I made some friends. I felt like I proved to people that I can run and be smooth and smart and better for the future."
She ran in the top 12 for much of the afternoon, which allowed her to miss the major wrecks that unfolded right behind her. "If I was where I was last year," she said, "I would have been collected." Patrick averaged a 28th place finish over 13 races in 2010 and didn't lead a lap until the final race of the season. She'll be the first to admit she's still adjusting to NASCAR. "I'm just taking so much in that I can't even pinpoint something I'm going to take back to the next race," she said. "I'm going to take absolutely everything I got to the next race because I'm such a clean slate."
She stressed that Daytona was unique because of the freshly paved surface and the need to form drafting partnerships with other drivers (hence the importance of making friends), and she was admittedly unsure about how to sustain the two-car draft, especially after Clint Bowyer pushed her to the lead on Lap 30. "If he wants me to get behind him and push, I can," she said over the radio. "Just tell me what I need to do because I don't know."
But Patrick will have another chance to try when she returns to Daytona in July for one of the 11 other races on her schedule. She'll visit six tracks for the second or third time this season and make her debut at four venues: Bristol, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Richmond and Kansas. This weekend she'll run at Phoenix, where she finished 32nd last November and will return this fall.
Her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., wants to work on Patrick's performance at short tracks -- Phoenix, Bristol and Richmond -- and on perfecting pit stops. "Anytime we go to a track we were at last year, I think we can improve," said Eury. "We're looking forward to taking her to Montreal; she's going to learn a lot there. Bristol's going to be a totally different experience. And when we come back to Daytona in July, we've got smaller points to improve on. She'll be a better race car driver in July."
She'll need to make improvements on the track this season to prove that she can run in NASCAR full-time. Last season, she averaged an 11th place finish over 17 IndyCar races, and she'll be running a full schedule again this year. (The first race of the season is on March 27 in St. Petersburg, Fla.) "It's important to keep my attitude up [in NASCAR] because it's pretty frustrating when you finish 20th," Patrick said several days before the Daytona race. "I feel like there's respect in the garage, but the real respect comes when you run with them. If they dish something out to you, you give it back."
Patrick says she'll let sponsorship, performance and her gut tell her which series she'll focus on in 2012. "I think it will become obvious in the end, but it's important to wait for that and not force anything," said Patrick. What's her gut telling her now about where she'll race next season? "Wherever I can be happy and win races," she said, before heading into her hauler. It's a dream of Patrick's to win the Indy 500, but even if she doesn't take the checkered flag there in May, look for her to make the switch. There's more money and more exposure in NASCAR, and she'll be hearing those cheers before races for years to come.