DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Danica Patrick on Saturday bumped and banged her way through the crash-filled ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway, where she successfully dodged one of the sloppiest events in recent memory. She pulled off a masterful save on a slide through the infield grass, fell to the back of the field and still managed a sixth-place finish.
So it came as no surprise that after taking a day to catch her breath, Patrick decided she should make her NASCAR debut this weekend in the second-tier Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
She previously had been praised for declaring Daytona was not the right place to make her NASCAR debut, but after holding her own in the ARCA race, everyone anticipated the about-face Monday.
"Racing in the Nationwide Series race was my goal during this entire two-month preparation process, but we wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do," she said. "The ARCA race was a blast, and I'm not ready for my first Daytona Speedweeks to end just yet. I want more racing."
Saturday's race is a big-boy race, with more than half the field expected to be Sprint Cup Series stars. They have won nine of the past 10 Nationwide races at Daytona, dating to 2005, when Martin Truex Jr. won it in a JR Motorsports car.
Kelley Earnhardt, general manager and part owner of JRM, doesn't think Patrick will take the team back to Victory Lane on Saturday.
But she doesn't think she will stink up the place, either.
"My dream scenario is she would be up there in the top five competing for the win," Earnhardt said Monday. "My reasonable expectation is that she just finishes and brings the car home and maybe gets a top 15. From a car-owner standpoint, she showed Saturday that she can make good decisions and not put other cars in jeopardy.
"Now, going forward, if something catastrophic happens this Saturday, you've still got last week to look back on and say, 'We came out of that OK.' I think that takes some of the pressure off and allows her to go into her first NASCAR race not worried about her debut."
Regardless of how she performs, Patrick is guaranteed to have an immense spotlight on her the rest of the week.
She has been the central figure of Speedweeks since her arrival Thursday and has been constantly swarmed by media and fans every time she steps into the garage. Her participation brought a new level of interest to the typically overlooked ARCA Series and undoubtedly will do the same for NASCAR at a time when the auto racing series is looking at any way possible to re-ignite fan interest.
Earnhardt has seen circus-like celebrity before, first with her father, the late Dale Earnhardt, and again with brother Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And even though Dale Jr. is annually named NASCAR's most popular driver, it's been some time since his big sister has seen such intense interest at the track.
"I've been in situations with both of them that have seemed very chaotic, but with Danica, it seemed like there were always at least 200 people swamping her," Kelly Earnhardt said. "I was really in awe, because I haven't seen something like that in our sport for a while. You see a crowd moving through the garage, and you know that Dale (Jr.) is coming, but with Danica, this was definitely different."
It's only going to get bigger from here, Earnhardt anticipated. Saturday's race is the first of 13 she's scheduled to run this season in a slate she will intertwine with the IndyCar Series and another run at an Indianapolis 500 victory.
"She's done really well with the attention, and I think she's had a level of this already," Kelly Earnhardt said. "But if she's successful here, it's going to be double or triple the attention on our side because our fan base is so much larger and so loyal."