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Caraviello: Danica's biggest race of Speedweeks may fall on a Saturday

February 16, 2012, David Caraviello,

Danica's biggest race of Speedweeks may fall on Saturday before Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 may still be 10 days away, but it arrived in force on Thursday, and it was powered by a diminutive raven-haired driver in a bright-green firesuit. Danica Patrick has yet to turn a competitive lap in a Sprint Cup car, but with her debut in the Great American Race looming, the spotlight on her during the media day that kicked off Speedweeks shone brighter than the central Florida sun.

Can she win the Daytona 500? How might she fare in a pack draft? Will she pair up with de facto car owner Tony Stewart in a tandem situation? For most of her 20-minute session she fielded one question after another about her forthcoming inaugural effort in the No. 10 Cup car, to the point where the Nationwide Series patch on her uniform seemed completely forgotten. And yet, let's not forget that Patrick is running for a championship this season, and it isn't on NASCAR's premier circuit, and that she has a race next Saturday that in the long run may be as important to her development as her effort in the sport's Super Bowl the following day.

"There's very little Nationwide testing here. I thought to myself, what a wonderful thing that I'm doing the Daytona 500, because the cars. ... I think it's going to be great practice for the Nationwide race, and it's something to keep in mind for the future, too."


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No question, having Patrick in the Daytona 500 is huge for NASCAR, which will surely draw the eyes of curiosity seekers as well as fans of the most popular and marketable female driver on the planet. If she wins -- and let's face it, under this roulette wheel of a drafting format, and coming off Trevor Bayne's unlikely victory a year ago, anything could happen -- the significance would rival Tiger Woods' seismic breakthrough at Augusta National in 1997. A Danica Patrick victory in the Daytona 500 would resonate to such an extent, that Bayne's accomplishment last season would feel like a mere blip by comparison.

So let's not underestimate the impact of Patrick hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy, a prospect that surely keeps NASCAR marketing types lying giddily awake at night. But barring a development of that historic significance, Patrick's real growth this season will come on the Nationwide tour, where she will attempt to make the jump from part-time participant to championship contender. A driver who has competed in 25 total national-division events will now tackle an entire 33-race schedule, which in addition to her 10 Cup starts will make for a workload very different from what she shouldered during her IndyCar days.

Given that Nationwide regulars win so relatively infrequently in a series in which Cup stars like to moonlight, given that there's no Chase to hide shortcomings in consistency, for title hopefuls getting off to a good start is key. "The first 10 races are everything for her," said Tony Eury Jr., crew chief on her Nationwide car. And it all starts at Daytona, where Danica Patrick winning the big show next Sunday might be the best thing for NASCAR, but winning the Nationwide opener a day earlier might be the best thing for her development as a stock-car driver long term.

"The opener is very important," Patrick said, surrounded by a crush of journalists and hangers-on snapping photos on mobile phones. "As Tony Jr. has told me, the first 10 races really set the stage, and set the pace for the rest of the year. It's like being in school -- you get a few bad grades on your first few tests, and just seems like you can't get out of that hole. It's always the same. If you can start the year off well, have great test results at the very beginning, it seems like you just hang up there. Hopefully, it's a good start to the year, and we can feel good about it."

The Nationwide tour offers Patrick the best chance at real progress. We've seen that already to an extent, given that she seemed lost in the tandem draft in the Nationwide opener a season ago, and by the July event at the same track had improved to the point where she could lead 13 laps and challenge for the victory. Her advancement on the intermediate downforce tracks that dominate the circuit was evident in strong finishes at Texas and Chicagoland, and a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas that stands as the best ever for a female driver in the sport's national divisions.

"She made tremendous progress last year," veteran Mark Martin said. "It was amazing, really. It showed how much talent she has."

No surprise, then, that she enters this season viewed as a legitimate Nationwide championship candidate, an effort aided somewhat by the rule implemented last season that prevents Cup regulars from contending for the crown in the sport's No. 2 series. Even so, she's driving for a JR Motorsports operation that produced a fourth-place finisher in Aric Almirola last season, so everyone knows her No. 7 car will be fast. The top title contenders from 2011, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler, are back and joined by promising newcomers like Austin Dillon and Cole Whitt. But at the very least, Patrick has placed herself in the conversation.

"Is it critical? No. But it would be really nice," she said of winning the Nationwide title. "More than anything, for what it signifies, and it means you're probably running up front every weekend and you've won some races. And I'd sure as heck like to win some races."

And the most likely place for Patrick to win races is on the Nationwide tour, despite the crapshoot that is tandem drafting at Daytona, despite the fact that her Daytona 500 effort promises to dominate the next two weekends. That will change once the circuit moves on from the Sunshine State, and Patrick's limited Cup starts take place at layouts like Darlington, Bristol and Dover that promise to be very challenging for her. Until then, though, be prepared for a level of Danicamania that may rival her stock-car debut in 2009. In the meantime, Patrick feels her Daytona 500 bid helps with her effort in the Nationwide race.

"There's very little Nationwide testing here," she said. "I thought to myself, what a wonderful thing that I'm doing the Daytona 500, because the cars, in my lack of experience, I didn't notice a difference between the two cars. I didn't drive them back to back, but when I came and tested a few weeks ago, it feels very similar to a Nationwide car. I think it's going to be great practice for the Nationwide race, and it's something to keep in mind for the future, too .... I think the Cup practice is going to be great for the Nationwide race, and I think the Nationwide race is going to help a lot for the next day for the Daytona 500."

Patrick concedes that she'll need some luck to have a chance to win the Daytona 500, but then again, in this drafting format, so does everyone else. She'd prefer to stay near the front in an attempt to avoid accidents, but on this 2.5-mile track, the whims of aerodynamics will take cars where they will. Regardless, no one seems to be counting her out. Particularly not her car owner -- OK, maybe Tommy Baldwin is listed as the owner after a points deal locked her into the field, but let's not split hairs -- who is still looking for a Daytona 500 victory of his own.

"Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year?" Stewart asked. "Anything can happen here. It anybody's ballgame. She did a really good job in the Nationwide race in July when I ran with her, and I was impressed with how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car deal. Talent-wise, there's no doubt in my mind she's got the ability to do it."

She also has the ability to enjoy success on the Nationwide tour, which barring a shocker next Sunday will be the true springboard of her stock-car career. In that regard, it's not too much of a stretch to argue that Danica Patrick's most important event of these Speedweeks might be not the Daytona 500, but the race run the day before.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.