Published February 05, 2010
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — For a few minutes, at least, Danica Patrick had the fastest qualifying time for her Daytona debut.
It didn't last very long.
Patrick briefly held pole position early in Friday's ARCA qualifying session, eventually falling to 12th as other drivers posted faster speeds. The IndyCar star will make her widely anticipated stock car debut Saturday — and, as her crew chief noted, at least she's starting close enough to the front to see the pace car.
"Now it's just time to think about how the heck I am going to run this race," Patrick said.
For fans and fellow competitors, it will be the first real chance to see whether Patrick has the potential to replicate her IndyCar success behind the wheel of a stock car.
Patrick's stock car experience so far is limited to a test session in December and a handful of practice laps this week.
That helps, but there's really no way to simulate the tension of racing at high speeds in a tight pack or the complexities of working in the draft — tailgating the car in front of you to avoid wind resistance — to zigzag through the field.
"I don't think it's going to be easy, but I think it will be fun," Patrick said.
For now, Patrick is trying to absorb knowledge from anywhere she can. It made sense to talk to Juan Pablo Montoya, a former open-wheel racing star who made a successful transition to NASCAR.
"(Montoya) was just helping me out with the drafting of the car," Patrick said. "And we were laughing about his driving, and giving it back to the drivers if they give it to you."
Patrick didn't go to Montoya for advice — Montoya went out of his way to find her Thursday.
"I've never spoken to Juan before," Patrick said. "He's a really nice guy. I really liked talking to him and he offered up his help throughout the rest of the year if I want it, whatever I want, so I have a lot to learn from Juan."
Montoya said during Thursday's Daytona 500 media day that he expects Patrick to be successful in stock cars, but perhaps not right away.
"To start with, she is going to struggle," Montoya said. "But if they are patient enough with her, I think she will be fine. It is going to be hard until it clicks."
Patrick said in open-wheel racing, help to new drivers is offered grudgingly — if at all.
"What a cool attitude to have," Patrick said. "They welcome you and offer help. And I instantly feel comfortable going to talk to them, whatever I have questions about, just because they made the really gracious step of coming to me first."
In that spirit, Patrick lent her spare HANS safety collar to fellow female driver Leilani Munter.
Patrick is trying to fit in, and doesn't want to take on too much too fast. Following Saturday's race, she must decide if she wants to run next Saturday's Nationwide series opener at Daytona.
"There's been a lot of people, a lot of really good people, that have told me it's not the right place to start," Patrick said. "It's a weird race. There's so many Cup guys out there. I don't want to be out there and make a mistake and take someone out who's running for a championship — or, God forbid, taking out one of the Cup guys and making them mad right away."
Patrick could face a bigger decision down the road: If she ends up liking NASCAR, would she leave IndyCar?
Patrick acknowledges that it's possible. But for now, she says her top priority is her full-time ride in IndyCar, and she still wants to win an Indianapolis 500.
"It shouldn't be viewed that this is the first step to moving on (to NASCAR), but I'm not mad if someone views it that way," Patrick said. "I do want to see what it's like."
From a media circus standpoint, at least, Patrick's arrival in stock car racing already is a raging success.
The Speed Channel, which is televising her debut, will use its Web site to stream live audio of Patrick's radio communication with her crew, along with video from her in-car cameras and a camera at the top of the grandstands that will focus on Patrick throughout the race.
A "Danicam," perhaps?
After Friday's qualifying session, Patrick was tailed by a train of cameras and microphones back to the garage area — a level of media attention not usually seen in ARCA, a lesser-known racing series similar to NASCAR.
"Elvis show up or something?" said a rival team crew member.