nascar

Danica Patrick up for challenge

Darlington not ideal for second Sprint Cup start

ashain@thestate.comMay 11, 2012 

NASCAR Patrick Auto Racing

NASCAR driver Danica Patrick smiles during a news conference at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday, May 10, 2012. Patrick said she isn't sure if NASCAR will penalize her for intentionally wrecking Sam Hornish Jr. at Talladega Superspeedway. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

MIKE MCCARN — AP

  • Darlington schedule Friday 9 a.m. Gates open 9-10:30 a.m. Nationwide Series practice 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series practice 2:15-3 p.m. Sprint Cup Series final practice 3:35 p.m. Nationwide Series qualifying 5:10 p.m. Sprint Cup Series qualifying 6:45 p.m. Driver introductions 7:15 p.m. VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 (200.8 Miles) Saturday 7:30-11:30 a.m. Richard Petty Driving Experience Ride Along Program 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Track walk (Renewal customers only. Must have track walk ticket) 2 p.m. Gates open 6:30 p.m. Sprint Cup Series driver introductions 7 p.m. Bojangles’ Southern 500 (501.3 Miles) TICKETS Tickets for both races can be purchased by calling (866) 459-7223 or at DarlingtonRaceway.com. Kids 17-under are half off for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and free for the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 in the general admission grandstand.

— Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 was supposed to be Danica Patrick’s debut in NASCAR’s top series.

She balked after hearing everyone talk about the challenge of getting around the narrow, egg-shaped oval.

“I wanted my first race in a Cup car to be a place where I could worry more just about the drivers and the race itself other than driving the car and putting myself at my limit of capabilities right away,” Patrick said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

After seven years with IndyCar that included third- and fourth-place finishes in the Indianapolis 500, Patrick has begun a fulltime stock-car racing career and is easing her way into NASCAR’s top series by driving in 10 races, including Darlington.

Patrick debuted in the Daytona 500, where she was caught up in an early crash and finished 38th. After eight races in the Nationwide series, where she is competing fulltime, Patrick is receiving more attention as she readies for her first Sprint Cup race in three months.

Patrick also knows how to get attention. She drove to a news conference Thursday in a race car wearing a designer outfit and high-heeled Christian Louboutin pumps.

“I’m not going to lie, it kind of feels like I’m going into my first Cup race again,” she said to a crowd of reporters.

Drivers said Darlington is one of the toughest tracks for new drivers to race competitively.

“She’s going to have her hands full,” driver Martin Truex Jr. said. “Darlington, I wouldn’t want it to be my first race.”

Patrick, who will be the third woman to drive at a top-tier NASCAR race at Darlington, said she watched a few hours of in-car video — paying attention to passing, restarts and getting in and out of pit road. Patrick also will work with a spotter who, she said, will “almost drive the car” — telling her what adjustments she needs to make as she goes around the 1.366-mile track.

“My goals are not to have a great finish. Of course, if I do, it’s going to be nice,” said Patrick, who will run in the Sprint Cup series fulltime for Stewart-Haas next season. “It’s really to get to the end.”

To gain experience this year, Patrick will enter Sprint races at Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix, Dover and Chicagoland, with most coming in the final three months of the season. David Reutimann is driving the No. 10 Chevy in the other races and has helped keep the car in the top 35 in points for a guaranteed starting spot.

“Let’s face it, it allows them to get their season going and not put too much on their plate,” Patrick said. “And then it allows me to get my Nationwide season underway as well.”

Patrick is 11th in the Nationwide standings. Her best finish is an eighth at Texas. Her average finish of 20.9 is 12th best among drivers who have competed in all eight races.

“I’m not different as a driver because I haven’t had great results,” she said. “A lot of that comes down to circumstances and luck. I have definitely practiced far faster than I did in the past two years when I got to a track, so it’s a matter of bringing the whole weekend together.”

While Patrick still might be learning how to drive around new tracks, she is going to get a lesson in stock-car justice.

Patrick will visit the NASCAR hauler when she arrives at Darlington after putting Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall on the cool-down lap at Talladega. She felt he pushed her into the wall on the final lap, but Hornish had a flat tire. Patrick said she didn’t realize she had put Hornish in the wall until she was flying home. She said she reached out to Hornish, his team owner Roger Penske and Nationwide Series director Joe Balash.

But a penalty could be coming.

“I have no idea,” Patrick said. “That’s not my department. That’s up to NASCAR.”

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