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Danica Patrick looks forward to the next step in her career: NASCAR

LAS VEGAS -- Danica Patrick has been looking ahead to the next step of her racing career ever since she signed a contract to compete in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at the end of 2009. Now that her IZOD IndyCar Series career is over it's full speed ahead to NASCAR.

Patrick has three more races left in her limited Nationwide schedule with JR Motorsports this season (Nov. 5, 12, 19). Next year, Patrick will compete in the entire Nationwide Series schedule and drive a limited number of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing.

"Starting Tuesday morning it's all NASCAR, all day," Patrick said last Friday in her Andretti Autosport transporter at Las Vegas.

Earlier this season her IndyCar team owner, Michael Andretti, told me that Patrick's decision to bounce between IndyCar and NASCAR wasn't doing either side justice because the two cars have totally different feels and styles. Patrick actually sounded defensive when asked if that was a true concern.

"First and foremost I wouldn't say that doing both ever interfered with IndyCar because I still had 100 percent dedication for all the things that I needed to do with IndyCar," she said. "Anything that wasn't expected wasn't because of NASCAR, that's for sure. In fact, I think NASCAR helped me break down the elements of IndyCar easier because an IndyCar has so much grip you have to think about the corner in its right order to make changes."

Now that her IndyCar career is complete Patrick has a chance to spend much more time with her Nationwide team. That means getting to know the personalities of each crew member even better.

"I'm looking forward to that. I think I know them pretty well. They are always upbeat, even when I haven't seen them for a while. I'll show up an hour before practice and everybody is upbeat and happy; happy to see me, and that is always very nice. It seems like the familiarity of all the people in the sport that are there every weekend is what makes it friendly. You can either choose to get along with everybody or have 34 weekends of struggle. Maybe it's the southern hospitality but it seems everybody is always happy and ready to have a laugh."

When drivers from other racing series join NASCAR they almost always get a place to live in North Carolina so they can be closer to the team's race shop. Patrick intends to remain a cross-country commuter from her home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I'm happy to fly wherever I need to go. I don't need any more houses than I already have," she said. "Tony Stewart lives in Indiana and his shop is in North Carolina. I will see the team 34 weekends a year. I'll see them more than my own houses."

On the track, Patrick looks forward to the chance to compete in every Nationwide Series race. And now that full-time Cup drivers are not eligible to contest for the Nationwide championship, she believes she has a legit shot at the Nationwide championship next season.

"I hope so," Patrick said. "My goal is to win in Nationwide. Top-five in the championship would really be good. Of course, I would really like to win it. With my style of consistency that could help out. The longer the season, the more that will help."

Patrick has made impressive progress since she began her Nationwide career in 2010. After a decent start at Daytona (where she was involved in a multicar crash on the frontstretch), Patrick struggled in her initial races at Fontana, Las Vegas and some of the other tracks on the schedule. She would disappear for months at a time to compete in IndyCar, and when she would return, she would usually finish 25th or lower.

But this year, Patrick has shown tangible signs of improvement behind the wheel of her No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet at JR Motorsports. In nine races, she's posted one top-five and three top-10s, both of which are career highs, and only one DNF, a career low.

"There is definitely progress and that is from me being comfortable with the car and Tony Eury Jr. being comfortable with me and understanding me and knowing where to start with the car so we can start off on the right foot," she said. "Kansas was a perfect example. We're not fiddling around with trying too many different things any more."

The key to Patrick's progress has been keeping it real in terms of expectations. While others put the spotlight on every move she makes in NASCAR, Patrick knew it would take time before she would improve.

"My goal has shifted to the top 10," Patrick said of her expectations. "After what has happened this year, a top 10 is more realistic. ... I think one really important thing that I didn't do at the beginning of last year when I was struggling the most was I didn't have any goals set for myself. Setting those goals has made me a little more calm and happy. When you don't know what to expect, almost anything but winning and top-fives are a disappointment."

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In 2012 Patrick will be bouncing between the JR Motorsports Nationwide team and the Stewart-Haas Racing Cup team. She will begin spending more time at Stewart's operation getting to know the crew and getting fitted for her racing seat in the Cup car. And while it hasn't been officially announced that Patrick will compete in next year's Daytona 500, it certainly is expected.

"That's not for sure yet but being in a Nationwide car really helps for Daytona," Patrick said.

Patrick laughed when reminded of last July's Nationwide race at Daytona when Stewart was able to push her to the front of the field and to the lead in the strange style of two-car tandems that are required with the shape of the cars on restrictor-plate tracks. This was before Patrick had finalized a Cup contract with Stewart.

"That was completely by chance," she said. "I was behind Trevor Bayne and I was pushing him for a little bit and he dropped back and I was sitting there in Turn 2 thinking, 'Oh ,Shoot.' Before I knew it, coming out of Turn 2, T.J. Majors, who spots for me in Nationwide, said, 'Nine car coming to you. Drag the brake.' I thought, 'Who is in the No. 9 car?' He said it was Tony Stewart and I thought, Now this is really funny, isn't it? To be able to work together so well and go to the front and, in my opinion, be the fastest two cars out there was pretty cool. I was sitting in my car thinking I was in a job interview."

Away from the track, Patrick performs yoga and meditates on a regular basis to help clear her mind. Having only one form of racing to worry about from here on out will also give her a clear focus as it's full speed ahead in NASCAR.

"When you have a clear focus it's always a little bit easier and when you can do everything you can for it, it's easier and less chaotic," Patrick said. "I'm sure in my mind I will be much more relaxed and I won't be pulled in as many different directions. There will be a lot less stress in simple situations like doing a press conference at a track because there will be less speculation about what is going on and clear focus on the future and what that is going to be.

"And, no, I don't have my Cup schedule out for next year."

Patrick also gave her final thoughts on the IndyCar Series and what it has meant to her.

"I did everything in my seven years in IndyCar to promote the series and tell everyone how great it was," Patrick said. "I still believe that. I still believe the IndyCar Series has a unique and exciting platform.

"What can I say? I definitely attribute where I am today for what has happened over the last seven years. I've been grateful for it. They have done a great job using me in their promotions over the years and generating more brand awareness for me in conjunction with them and I appreciate that. I think they are going to be just fine moving forward. I look forward to watching the races to be honest.

"I look forward to sitting on the edge of my seat watching these 1.5-mile races next year and watching the strategies play out on the road courses and being able to race where my heart is but being able to enjoy the things that are great about IndyCar."

Patrick continues to hold out hope that she will race in the one event she loves the most -- the Indianapolis 500. But there is no deal in place for her to return in 2012.

"I don't know if it will happen for sure, but at some point in time it is going to," Patrick said. "There are so many things to juggle. It's not as easy as saying, 'I want to race here,' because there are team situations, scheduling situations, sponsor situations, exhaustion situations. There are so many things that go into it. You get exhausted and sometimes taking a step back is better than taking a step forward.

"I know I will be back at Indy at some point but whether it is next year or the year after or the year after [that], I'm not sure."

Patrick had to say goodbye to her IndyCar crew over the weekend and admitted that was going to be difficult. She had some strong bonds with them during her time with the team.

"These are guys that I've been with now the whole time at Andretti," she said. "I'm going to miss them. But some of them have already come to watch me in NASCAR. As time evolves you realize who really believes in you as a person and are not just there for the job. So many of my guys believe in me and they are happy for me. They are looking forward to watching me. They text me on the weekends when I'm at a NASCAR race. It's not the last time I'll see any of them."

Like most professional athletes who leave a team and move on, Patrick has to clean out her locker before her departure.

"I do have a locker to clean out and I've been slowly cleaning it out the last few races," Patrick said. "I'm going to load it all up here because it's closer to Scottsdale, Ariz. We'll load up a big box of my stuff and that's it.

"I have some signed gloves from Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers and, as a girl, I probably have bras. I don't think too many drivers in the series have that."

There is no doubt that Patrick's focus will help her improve in NASCAR. The fact that she is able to now go full speed ahead should make that happen even quicker.