News & Media


Patrick leaves Indianapolis 500 behind -- for now

May 25, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Danica Patrick has had a steep learning curve in NASCAR, but that doesn't mean she's headed back to open-wheel. (Autostock)

CONCORD, N.C. -- Danica 'having a lot of fun' despite tougher learning curve in stock cars

When Danica Patrick caught parts of Indianapolis 500 qualifying on television last weekend, she couldn't help but think about how she might be faring if she were still competing in the event that defined her for seven years.

The former open-wheel racer could envision every thought going through the drivers' heads, understand the terminology and banter uttered over the radio and on pit road, imagine the emotions felt by those trying to make the field.

"I was ready to leave IndyCar. I wanted to be here. When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don't really think about it that much -- it's like that girlfriend you didn't want to have anymore. You don't think about her anymore."

--DANICA PATRICK

But she didn't feel the urge to be there.

There is no clearer sign of Patrick's commitment to NASCAR than her presence at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Memorial Day weekend. Rather than competing in a certain affair up in Indianapolis, she's racing in the track's Nationwide Series event on Saturday and in the Coca-Cola 600 a day later.

Patrick made her name in the Indy 500, twice leading the event in the waning laps, and has been a fixture in the IndyCar showcase since 2004. This time, though, nose cones and side pods have been traded for bumper and fenders -- and all of it without looking back.

She's no longer considered an open-wheel driver dabbling in NASCAR; instead, she's a NASCAR driver who once competed in open-wheel. Her choice of venue this weekend cements the fact.

"The reason why I came to race NASCAR was to do all of these things," Patrick said Thursday, referring to her multifaceted stock-car adventure. "I was ready to leave IndyCar. I wanted to be here. When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don't really think about it that much -- it's like that girlfriend you didn't want to have anymore. You don't think about her anymore. ... You just don't.

"Indy, I have lots of great memories from there, and probably the part of me that doesn't feel quite as longing for it is that there is still a chance that I could do it again. It's not gone. I'm excited about this weekend."

It's a transition that her Sprint Cup car owner, Tony Stewart, can relate to. Stewart also continued his pursuit of the Indianapolis 500 after moving into NASCAR, twice attempting both it and the 600 on the same day. Over time, though, his quest for Indy glory ebbed as his commitment to NASCAR increased.

"It's not the end of the world," he said. "It's putting one chapter behind you, and starting another chapter."

For now, the open-wheel chapter of Patrick's history has clearly been closed, even if she's leaving open the option of potentially attempting Indianapolis again one day. Of course, it probably helps that she's so busy in her new vocation -- jumping from one vehicle and one practice to another in this tandem weekend -- continuing to learn as much as she can about driving stock cars.

So far, results have been mixed -- one of her better Nationwide runs of the season, 12th at Darlington two weeks ago, was followed last Sunday by a blown tire and a crash at Iowa. Although she placed 30th at Darlington in her most recent Cup start, she stayed out of trouble and finished the race, which had been her stated goal.

"She's had a difficult season this year, and she obviously wishes she had finished better, run better," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns Patrick's car on the Nationwide tour. "But I think she really needs to buckle down and learn everything she can.

"She's really tried to get a four-year degree in a very short amount of time. She's trying to learn a lot in a little bit of time, and she just needs to concentrate on what she can learn and what she can improve on. She's going to have a bigger challenge next year, and she needs to look forward to that and prepare herself the best she can for that."

Next year, Patrick is targeting a full-time Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, which currently fields her car on NASCAR's top level. Right now, that seems a substantial leap. But some watched her efforts at Darlington and were impressed with what they saw.

"I tell you, I was so happy and so impressed with [her at] Darlington," said Cup team owner and television analyst Michael Waltrip. "... She outran people in the Cup race. Honestly, I didn't know if she could do that or not. I think what she learned there, and the job that she did there, it elevated in my eyes, and I think to lot of people on the inside, what they think her potential is. She just needs to keep doing it."

Patrick recorded the best finish ever by a woman at NASCAR's national level with her fourth-place result in a Nationwide race at Las Vegas last year. Her current Nationwide campaign started slowly, and although she's rebounded somewhat with good finishes at Texas and Darlington, she's also been forced to scale back expectations.

Regardless, three-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip believes Patrick has shown herself to be a capable stock-car driver who would have a ride somewhere at the sport's national level regardless of her gender.

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"I know she's a female driver, but when you watch her drive, she has driving ability. She took to Darlington as good as any rookie I've ever seen," he said. "... Sure she was laps down, but she finished the race, and that's the most important thing for a rookie. You need to run every lap you can, finish every mile that you can. That will pay off in the future.

"The thing she can do is -- she's a sponge. She's got a lot of people telling her what to do. ... You've got all these people coming to her and giving her advice and she doesn't blow them off. She doesn't say to somebody, 'I don't think I need to listen to him.' You can see it -- she takes it in, and she analyzes it, and decides what she can do with it. Smart girl."

Even so, that advice and support can't completely flatten out what is a very steep learning curve, particularly on the Cup side. Patrick's car was 43rd fastest in 600 qualifying Thursday night, meaning she wouldn't have made the field had her No. 10 not been locked in.

Sunday's marathon promises to be arduous for a driver who has never experienced anything like it. Still, Patrick is clearly comfortable and content in this stock-car pursuit, embracing everything about it -- even, apparently, the struggle.

That much is evident in the fact that on Memorial Day weekend, there is no pining to be back home again in Indiana.

"I'm very pleased that I'm in NASCAR. I'm very happy, I'm having a lot of fun," Patrick said. "I'm looking forward to a different challenge this weekend."