Given that Danica Patrick's Daytona 500 was over before it really began, her trip to Darlington Raceway this weekend for the Southern 500 should actually be considered her first NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Patrick was involved in a multi-car crash at the start of the second lap Feb. 27 at the Daytona 500 and her crumpled GoDaddy Chevrolet was sent to the garage area for lengthy repairs. She would return to the race 62 laps down on the leaders, and finish 38th, 64 laps down to race winner Matt Kenseth. She has not competed in another Cup contest since.
The 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway is the South's oldest superspeedway. It is shaped like an egg because track creator Harold Brasington was unable to convince Sherman Ramsey, the owner of a minnow pound, to relocate when the track was built in 1949. The track hosted its first Southern 500 in 1950.
So with different configurations at both ends of the racetrack, it's a handful for any driver to manhandle. Patrick is hoping a "lady's touch" will help her navigate the track that has been called "too tough to tame."
When team owner Tony Stewart announced Patrick's limited Cup schedule, Darlington was schedule to be her Cup debut. Patrick's response to her team owner was incredulous.
"That was going to be my Cup debut until I decided that I don't think that is a wise idea," Patrick told SI.com. "I didn't want the first time I'm in a Cup car to be at Darlington. That would make me very nervous for sure. I like to do really well, especially when the spotlight is on really bright. I think it would have made it very difficult to do that."
Patrick and her sponsor, GoDaddy, realized that from an exposure perspective, the Daytona 500 was the best place for her to make her debut. And true to form, Patrick dominated the news cycle leading up to the start of the 500 and promised to be a major storyline in NASCAR's biggest race.
But that storyline was derailed after one lap was completed. It was a disappointing outcome for Patrick.
"My Cup debut was disappointing," she said. "It was a bummer, but at the end of the day it's over with and some of these things were out of my control and that is that."
Patrick relishes getting a second chance to make a first impression in the Cup Series this weekend.
"I'm looking forward to driving the car in real conditions and I'm nervous, too," she said. "It's going to be hard. You are out there with guys that know that track. Running in the Nationwide race, all the Cup guys that run in it are all right up front. There are some really, really great Cup drivers that run in the Nationwide Series and that is a good thing because the Nationwide drivers learn really how hard you have to push to be fast and do well. But you will have a whole field of those people now, so it's going to be very hard, I think."
But Patrick appreciates the challenge, saying that she chose more difficult Cup tracks with an eye on the "long term."
Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing recently tested the Cup car at Nashville Superspeedway, a facility that used to stage Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide races but is not hosting any NASCAR events in 2012. Because of that, any NASCAR team can test at that facility.
"When I tested the Cup car last week for the first time I really called it my first real Cup test," Patrick said. "Daytona is not exactly the most challenging place for a driver, so going to Nashville and having to brake and work on the car was good ... I felt really comfortable right away. It felt good."
Patrick's first three Cup races will all be under the lights, which is fitting considering that Patrick is constantly in the spotlight.
"They are opportunities to shine on a big stage if I can. I hope I can," Patrick said. "There is no promise for sure that any one of them will be amazing finishes in races for me, but I need to make realistic goals for my next two that I think I can accomplish and learn from them so that I can be better the next time.
When Patrick was competing in the IZOD IndyCar Series, the month of May centered around the Indianapolis 500. Rather than traveling, Patrick and her husband, Paul Hospenthal, pretty much stayed put in their lavish motorhome in the driver/owner motorhome lot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year, Patrick's month of May will require a lot of traveling. She competed in last Saturday's Nationwide Series race in Talladega, Ala., and even led a lap before she was involved in one of the late-race crashes that determined the outcome. Afterward, she intentionally put three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall after the checkered flag as result of a move he had made on her on the final lap.
This week, Patrick's schedule includes the Nationwide Series race on Friday night and the Southern 500 on Saturday night -- both at Darlington Raceway. Next week is the Nationwide Series race in Newton, Iowa. Memorial Day weekend includes the Nationwide race at Charlotte on May 26, followed by the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27.
"The first thing that comes to mind is May is going to be difficult and a challenge; it's just going to include more travel than it used to," Patrick said. "May is probably one of the busiest months I've ever had. I'm busy five to six days a week, out of town in different cities. ...It's a good problem to have but it definitely takes a different mindset."
Patrick's busy month will conclude with NASCAR's longest race of the year -- 400 laps around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600. It's NASCAR's version of a marathon, and Patrick is up for the challenge.
"It's going to be a long race," Patrick said. "But I'm OK with that. I've always enjoyed long races. I've always looked forward to the Indy 500 for that. I think long races allow for a lot of interesting things to happen and time to make your car better if it needs to be. I've always liked them. Cup races are definitely very long. ... But I like the whole mindset of a long race and the things that happen."
Patrick won't be competing in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 2004, but admits she will be watching it before the 600.
While Patrick's Cup races get extra attention, the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship remains her central focus. And while she will be the first to admit her performance in Nationwide hasn't been what she wanted, she understands it's all a learning process.
"It's been disappointing at times this year," she explained. "Daytona was a real bummer qualifying on the pole and then not finishing properly. That was a big hit in points. We've had some difficult race weekends. Texas was fun at the end for sure, but we didn't get as many points as we wanted to at this point in time. You know how racing goes -- sometimes cars are running well and have bad days and then other days when things don't seem they are going your way all weekend, things fall in your favor and you have a decent result. You can't look at the races you think you should have done well at and be bummed out too much because just as easily as things went wrong you can go on a good stretch for a while."
In the fast-paced world of auto racing, the NASCAR schedule is like an all you can eat buffet. There is little chance to reflect on the item you just passed because there is plenty more ahead.
Instead of looking back at the disappointments of the season so far, Patrick has to look forward and wonder, "What's next?"
"It's always nice to ... know you have another redo the next weekend and it's good," Patrick said. "It doesn't give you as much time to dwell on it. But if you get into a rut mentally and start to get negative on yourself or the process, that can be really deteriorating until you get it mentally together. That's where I was in my head at the beginning of the season -- a little overwhelmed and disappointed with the results and I let it get to me.
"You have to be ready to regroup quickly and move on."