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Patrick starts strong in full-time Cup debut

January 10, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Patrick starts strong in full-time Cup debut
Danica downplays impressive Preseason Thunder showing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- They stood five and six deep peering through the Daytona International Speedway garage windows on Thursday hoping for a glimpse, pining for a smile, an autograph, an acknowledgement.

And this crowd of mostly middle-aged men and women playing hooky from work to attend NASCAR’s Preseason Thunder wasn’t there for the sport's long-reigning Most Popular Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We’re here for Danica,’’ they responded in near unison when asked.

Her bright green GoDaddy.com sponsor hats, shirts and autograph cards were everywhere in the Daytona infield as fans lingered for a view and scouted out tables for the autograph session later that evening.

It was quite a reception for Danica Patrick, who posted the third quickest lap in the morning test session -- her first official laps as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver.

“I feel really excited, I have to say, going into this season versus a lot of other seasons in my career,’’ said Patrick, who begins in earnest her Cup career after a historic run in IndyCars (her third-place finish in the 2009 Indy 500 is the highest ever for a woman) and a couple seasons of splitting time between open wheel and NASCAR.

Last year, Patrick’s first competing only in stock cars, she finished 10th in the Nationwide Series points standings in addition to running 10 Cup races.

What started in go-karts, included intensive training in England and, eventually, international stardom as the most accomplished woman in American open-wheel history, is again one of the most-watched story lines in sports. How will Patrick fare in NASCAR’s big leagues?

 “(Crew chief) Tony Gibson has said to all of you (reporters) and said to me that we need to create certain expectation levels as we go along and make them realistic, be smart about them and move them slowly,’’ Patrick said. “… You just have to stay relaxed, stay positive; you can’t let the tough days get you down. I’m sure they are going to happen so I think that is going to help us have more better days if we can stay positive and stay upbeat.’’

Patrick certainly looked the part Thursday.

Arriving before her Stewart-Haas Racing team owner/teammate Tony Stewart for a joint interview with reporters in the Daytona International Speedway media center, she stepped on the podium, sat in the middle chair and moved Stewart’s placard to the side.

When told Stewart would be joining her, she quickly moved Stewart’s nameplate back to the center of the table and moved herself to a chair on the side.

“Hey, I know who’s boss,’’ she joked.

When Stewart joined her moments later, he told her that “the new guy” is supposed to buy dinner for the team.

“Good thing I’m not a guy,’’ Patrick said, smiling.

Asked about her upcoming Rookie of the Year competition with two-time defending Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Patrick deferred.

“You know, you just race hard,’’ she said, smiling and admitting she didn’t honestly know how that award was decided. “I think those are the things that just happen.

"If it does, it does, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But I think that if I shoot for great results each time and keep bettering myself all the time, that is the best goal that I can have as opposed to just shooting for Rookie of the Year."

With the introduction of NASCAR’s new Generation-6 race car, Patrick figures her full-time debut couldn’t have been timed any better. She’s hoping that being closer to the same learning curve as everyone else will work to her advantage.

She backed up her impressive showing in the morning session Thursday with a seventh best lap in the afternoon and fifth best 10-lap average on the day.

After climbing out of the car at the end of her first full day as a Sprint Cup regular, she had a quick debrief with the team, then went over to the garage window and signed some autographs.

So far, so good.