Sports

Danica makes strong first impression

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Four days of Speed Weeks down and what do we know? Other than GoDaddy.com's sponsorship deal in the ARCA series this week being a better bargain for the dollar than instant noodles. Plenty.

1. Danica Patrick might be able to do this after all. The 27-year-old open-wheel star has been dismissed at almost every level of her career, sometimes for sexist reasons, sometimes because her results have not matched the attention she receives. And yes, her only victory as a professional before and since her 2008 Izod IndyCar win was in a pro/celebrity race in 2002.

But she's always been competent, whether in the European formula ladder series or in the IRL. And after finishing sixth in her stock-car debut for JR Motorsports Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, it appears she might be able to handle this new form of racing.

Yes, it was the ARCA series. Yes, her Hendrick Motorsports-prepared car had a lot to do with her drive from the back of the pack to the front after a slide through the grass. But that car was also good enough to get her in a lot of trouble, too, and she was impressive in one of the most scrutinized on-the-job-training exercises in sports history.

She seems to understand that she is still miles behind the drivers she will soon face in the Nationwide Series, but most observers - within JR Motorsports and outside of it - conceded Saturday that there might be a stock-car driver in Patrick.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have found his fastball: Sure, it's Daytona and Earnhardt Jr. has a certain aptitude at the 2.5-mile restrictor-plate track. No, success here is not an indicator of a strong season, and, really, all he's done so far is go fast in practice and qualifying. No points for that.

But Hendrick Motorsports expended great energy in the offseason - including moving Mark Martin's lead race engineer to Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet - and the early returns are positive. Earnhardt Jr.'s lap of 190.913 mph in qualifying was beaten only by Martin's 191.188. Which suggests ...

3. The 5/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports might have something for the 24/48: Again, it's early, not even close to Jimmie Johnson time of year. And counting Jeff Gordon's championship total and Johnson's four in a row, the 24/48 building is ahead 8-0. But Rick Hendrick's mandate to energize Earnhardt's program - through Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew and dutifully supported by Mark Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson - might make HMS a real four-car team. As Johnson puts it, "With the lineup of guys we've got, if we just worry about beating each other, in a very friendly competitive way, it's on."

And that's bad for everyone else - except NASCAR's marketing department, which probably would smile at the prospect of the sport's most popular driver and one of its most respected competing at a high level.

4. Patrick's buzz-generation abilities work in stock cars, too: In the spirit of DanicaWeeks ... more Danica.

Virtually each of her steps through the ARCA garage was documented this week. Cameras and autograph hounds followed, if they could keep up. Her radio chatter was scanned and her lap times parsed.

Competitively, Patrick is likely to be a middling competitor in the Nationwide Series this season, just like the other open-wheel veterans who came over to see what life was like with a roof over their head. But she instantly will become one of the most recognized, scrutinized and sought-after personalities in the sport, just like her boss, Earnhardt Jr.

Patrick is convinced she will be able to handle the rigors of a part-time NASCAR schedule and a full-time 17-race Izod IndyCar Series slate without either venture suffering. The reason: She's on the road every weekend anyway, leveraging her marketability through photo and commercial shoots and personal appearances.

That remains to be seen. Either way, her presence could inject a good deal of adrenaline into the 12 Nationwide race weekends to which she has committed. And there's value in that to all involved.

5. Kyle Busch has facets: Like on a diamond ring, the kind he put on fiancee Samantha Sarcinella's finger in the motor coach they designed together.

The 24-year-old with a history of rowdy behavior - so much so it's his nickname - has made several strides toward domesticity this offseason, launching his own NASCAR truck series team and being re-signed by a Sprint Cup team (Joe Gibbs Racing) for the first time.

The next logical step - and an increasing trend within the series - would be fatherhood. Continue to monitor his Twitter account for details. That's how the nuptial news spread Friday.

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