News & Media

Cup debut brings another transition for Patrick

January 13, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- To Danica Patrick, it felt like the first day at a new school. There were new classmates, the drivers on the Sprint Cup tour. There were new instructors, like car owner Tony Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. There were even new lunch routines, like Olive Garden versus the usual sandwich. And there was a new classroom, the Sprint Cup garage area, which at one point Patrick overran on pit road, forcing her to back up before pulling in.

"It is a little like [a] first day," Patrick said Thursday during the opening day of Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway. "I think that with racing, you do have an opportunity to meet some of the people just at the track in general, and then of course making a seat and getting comfortable and fitting everything, you get a chance to meet everybody. I can't say I remember everybody's name yet. Somebody said hello to me [Wednesday] night, and they're like, 'Hey, don't just walk by.' There's so many people, I don't know who everyone is yet. I've got a lot of people to learn."

"[It's] just getting familiar ... so when I hop in throughout the year it's simple and straightforward."


By now, it's a process to which she's probably accustomed. Patrick raced five years in IndyCars before making a gradual transition into NASCAR's Nationwide Series, in which she will compete full time this season. Never one to limit herself, Patrick also will compete in 10 events on the Cup tour in 2011, including the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. That commitment means introducing herself to another new environment, this one centered on a bright green No. 10 Stewart-Haas car she will drive under the tutelage of new crew chief and team competition director Zipadelli.

"Just like going to the first day of school, you want to make a good impression, you want to do a good job," she said. "And probably missing pit-in on pit road and having to back up is probably not what you want to do at school. I didn't want to trip like that. But it's probably not that big of a deal. It's finding your way around, finding my locker, literally. There's no combination for it, of course, but it is a locker that I needed to find, getting in sync with that. ... [It's] just getting familiar with all the little things and getting comfortable and setting everything up, so when I hop in throughout the year it's simple and straightforward."

Her first day in a Cup car was straightforward -- and fast. Of the 32 cars participating in Preseason Thunder, Patrick's posted the eighth-fastest speed in Thursday's morning session, which featured only single-car runs. Then again, fast has rarely been a problem for Patrick, whose fourth-place finish in the Nationwide race at Las Vegas last year was the best ever for a woman at NASCAR's national level. She also finished 10th in the July race at Daytona, a venue where she's had a lot of track time in a stock car, where she seems very comfortable, and where her Cup debut will take place.

"I'm really kind of glad that the first time that I'm in a Cup car is here at Daytona, where I can get the fit right and get all the little things right so that when we go to a track that's a little bit more challenging from a driver's perspective, that stuff is all good to go and there's no concern or no distraction with those things," she said. "So it's nice to be here to run for the first time and feel comfortable in having been here before. But like I said, it's a pretty straightforward track for a driver."

Stewart, the owner of Patrick's Cup car, said Thursday he was still unsure of whether he'd try to obtain points from another car owner to try and guarantee his new driver a spot in the Daytona 500. Given that Patrick's No. 10 is new and has no points from last season, she'll have to qualify for the event on speed unless some kind of deal is struck. It's not unusual for owners to acquire points from a defunct or scaled-down organization to ensure a new car a spot in the Great American Race.

"The good thing is, looking on the sheet [Thursday], the car seems to have good speed right off the bat," said Stewart, who last year won his third championship in NASCAR's premier series. "I've got the utmost confidence that even in the worst-case scenario that we've got the right driver that can get this car in the race, no problem. But we're working through that, and trying to get that finalized, and trying to figure out our options to make sure we give her the best opportunity to get in the Daytona 500 and get her all the experience that we can get her."

When it comes to the race car, Zipadelli is trying to do the same thing. Stewart's former crew chief left Joe Gibbs Racing and driver Joey Logano after last season to work as competition director at his old friend's shop in addition to overseeing Patrick's partial Cup effort. Zipadelli has no shortage of experience working with new drivers, given that each of his past two charges -- Stewart and Logano -- were rookies when he first teamed with them.

"He's familiar with this and the process of getting a rookie adapted to the car and knowing what to do to make them comfortable," Stewart said. "So for us from a company standpoint, it made sense to have him -- since we had him in-house anyway -- to be able to apply him over there in a crew chief role. And at the same time, the practicality of it, of him having that experience of working with new drivers, makes it a smart decision for us to have somebody like him that can work with Danica and know how to go through those learning processes and how to help with that. So really, we get the best of both worlds with it."

Seeing that green No. 10 on the track at Daytona was a new experience for more than just Patrick. At one point Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who fields Patrick's car on the Nationwide circuit -- looked at the scoring monitor and asked his crew chief, Steve Letarte: "There's no 10. Who's in the 10?"

Preseason Thunder: Day 1

Morning Practice Speeds
Pos.DriverTimeSpeed PosDriverTimeSpeed
2.Paul Menard46.785 192.369 18. Kasey Kahne 47.160 190.840
3.Kurt Busch46.787 192.361 19. Kevin Harvick 47.176 190.775
4.Ricky Stenhouse Jr.46.885 191.959 20. Clint Bowyer 47.199 190.682
5. Juan Montoya46.911 191.853 21. Mark Martin 47.225 190.577
6. Jimmie Johnson46.933191.763 22. Marcos Ambrose 47.238 190.525
7. Greg Biffle46.987 191.542 23. Aric Almirola 47.255 190.456
8. Danica Patrick47.004 191.473 24. Jamie McMurray 47.269 190.400
9. Jeff Burton47.019 191.412 25. Regan Smith 47.374 189.978
10. Trevor Bayne47.022 191.400 26. A.J. Allmendinger 47.419 189.797
11.Dale Earnhardt Jr.47.025 191.388 27. Carl Edwards 47.435 189.733
12. Tony Stewart 47.032 191.359 28. Brad Keselowski 47.504 189.458
13. Kyle Busch47.037 191.339 29.Casey Mears 47.508 189.442
14. Joey Logano 47.059 191.249 30. Martin Truex Jr. 47.633 188.945
15. Ryan Newman 47.110 191.042 31. Joe Nemechek 48.304 186.320
16. Denny Hamlin 47.122 190.994

Preseason Thunder: Day 1

Afternoon Practice Speeds
Pos.DriverTimeSpeed Pos.DriverTimeSpeed
2.Joey Logano44.469202.388 18.Jeff Burton46.945191.714
3.Brad Keselowski44.505202.224 19.Juan Montoya46.969191.616
4.A.J. Allmendinger44.506202.220 20.Matt Kenseth46.997191.502
5.Dale Earnhardt Jr.44.794200.920 21.Marcos Ambrose47.007 191.461
6.Jimmie Johnson44.795200.915 22.Ryan Newman47.010191.449
7.Denny Hamlin44.965200.156 23.Kevin Harvick47.052191.278
8.Kasey Kahne45.047199.791 24.Trevor Bayne47.061191.241
9.Mark Martin45.782196.584 25.Martin Truex Jr.47.095191.103
10.Clint Bowyer45.782196.584 26.Jamie McMurray47.102191.075
11.Ricky Stenhouse Jr.46.164194.957 27.Regan Smith47.266190.412
12.Jeff Gordon46.482193.623 28.Carl Edwards47.285190.335
13.Paul Menard46.726192.612 29.Aric Almirola47.296190.291
14.Kurt Busch46.835192.164 30.Dave Blaney47.453189.661
15.Tony Stewart46.887191.951 31.Casey Mears47.671188.794
16.Danica Patrick46.893191.926 32.Joe Nemechek 48.038187.352

"She's been relatively quiet, and that's probably good for her to be able to come in here and work, and get everything done she wants to get done, and concentrate on her driving, and concentrate on her new team and everybody," Earnhardt said. "She's learning a whole new group of guys, and the nuances of the Cup car versus the Nationwide car. As far as I can tell it's been a pretty quiet day, considering."