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Caraviello: Danica's new chapter begins sooner than later

October 08, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- For most of her career she has been synonymous with cars outfitted with side pods and nose cones, vehicles that emit an insectile buzz rather than a throaty, animalistic roar. Danica Patrick long has been the queen of the IndyCar circuit, its top draw and most popular driver, as much a part of that racing discipline as brick start/finish lines, Brazilian winners, or victorious swigs of milk. Next weekend, though, that chapter comes to an end when Patrick competes in her last open-wheel race -- for now -- and her full-time NASCAR career begins at last.

Technically, her first full-time NASCAR campaign kicks off next year, when she takes over JR Motorsports' No. 7 car for the entire Nationwide Series schedule, with a handful of Sprint Cup starts thrown in. But make no mistake about it -- once the IndyCar season finale next weekend at Las Vegas is complete, Patrick is all stock car, all the time. Mentally, she already may be there; prior to her Nationwide start Saturday at Kansas Speedway, she sounded as if the shift to NASCAR couldn't come soon enough. But Patrick's next three starts are the last three of the season, and that triumvirate of Texas, Phoenix and Homestead serve as a crucial jumping-off point toward next year.

"We're going to try to learn as much as we can, as hard as we can to just build momentum going into next year. ... Her goal is going to be trying to run for the championship."

--TONY EURY JR.

"Texas is the starting point," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said. "We've got to go hard at Texas, got to go hard at Homestead. Phoenix is going to be different for everybody. But that's it. Got to go. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fun. Her attitude, she's a whole lot smarter than she was when she got here two years ago. To get in there week in and week out, we'll get better."

Daytona next season certainly will get all the attention, particularly if Patrick attempts the Daytona 500 in a Stewart-Haas car. But Texas, really, is where it all begins. Texas will mark the first time Patrick comes to a NASCAR track without any intention of switching cars in the near future, the first time JR Motorsports will be able to prepare the No. 7 for just one driver rather than the seven who have shared it this year. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 is out there, and everyone expects Patrick to try to find room in her NASCAR schedule to make a run at the one race she still wants to win most. But for all practical purposes, once Patrick arrives in Fort Worth, all the distractions are left behind.

Those last three races will be a time to fine-tune for what Patrick hopes is a run at the Nationwide championship in 2012. Eury said the No. 7 team will focus on small things, like getting on and off pit road under a green flag, which they plan to have videotaped so they can study them during the winter.

"We have three weeks building into next year, so we're going to try to learn as much as we can, as hard as we can to just build momentum going into next year," Eury said. "We feel really good about what we've got going to Daytona, but we really want to be focused in on like [Fontana] and Phoenix. The first 10 races are everything for her. Her goal is going to be trying to run for the championship, so I've told her the first 10 races are going to be everything. We've got to come out of the gate [with] top-fives, top-10s. She's got to have enough confidence in the cars so we can make that happen."

Patrick has made 115 career starts on the IndyCar circuit since her debut in 2005, winning once in Japan, and twice coming tantalizingly close to victory in the Indianapolis 500. Given how much of her racing life has been dedicated to that discipline, it would seem only natural for her to be a little wistful at this point, with her final event as a full-time member of the series only days away. She's not. Asked at Kansas if she had thought at all about next week's looming IndyCar farewell, Patrick sounded like someone who mentally already had shifted gears.

"Not really," she said. "I think I've had a nice transition over these two years to adapt and to really feel good about my decision and transitioning over to NASCAR. And it really has been a transition. It hasn't been one to the next, it's been a transition. I think that's helped it, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm ready for change. There will be definitely things and people that I miss about IndyCar. I'm sure especially on frustrating weekends I'll think, well, when I came here in IndyCar it was much easier. I'm excited about the change, and I'm not afraid of change. I think it's going to be fun."

Translation: Are we there yet? That sense of anticipation has to be heightened by the improvement Patrick had made in the Nationwide car this season, and her progression from a driver who struggled to stay on the lead lap to someone who finished fourth at Las Vegas -- best ever for a female driver in NASCAR's national divisions -- and recorded 10th-place results at Chicagoland and Daytona (2011 results). Just imagine what the might be capable of once she sheds the burden of her part-time schedule, and that car-switching hopscotch that's likely held her back more than anything else. After next weekend, that tactic becomes a thing of the past.

"It's going to make it a lot easier," Eury concedes. There are also the intangibles, like a level of camaraderie in the NASCAR garage area with which Patrick seems completely enamored. And limited as they are, she even likes the NASCAR testing rules better, important because she's likely to do a lot of it in a stock car in the coming months.

"What are the rules for testing in these cars? Can't go to tracks that you race at, but pretty much it's open, right? Which is much better than IndyCars, so I have a feeling it will help me prepare a little bit more," she said. "In IndyCar we have so many strict rules with mileage and tire allotments. There are many times we go to a test, and you get 100 miles and two sets of tires, and you went all that way for two sets of tires, and God forbid you flat-spot one. I think that will be better. I think the testing rules are better for me in NASCAR, and they'll allow me to test a little bit more often. But there obviously will be a lot of tracks I haven't been to before, so that will be a challenge."

No question, the challenges will still be there, even once Patrick becomes so ensconced in NASCAR that the terminology and pit-road procedures become second nature. But for now, it's time for one chapter in her racing career to end, and a new one to begin -- sooner than most think.

"I think she's ready to move on," Eury said. "Definitely [the Indianapolis 500] was her big deal over there. She really wanted to win that race, and still does, if she can make things happen. She's ready to come over here. She knows this is part of her future. She's eager to get over here and get going on it."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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