BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Danica Patrick is used to being shadowed by cameras and fans, but even she was taken aback when she stepped to the podium just before starting preseason testing for the IndyCar series.
Instead of the expected interview session with the media, she was greeted Wednesday by dozens of community and business leaders mostly in dark suits and ties ahead of the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 11.
"I didn't know I was supposed to make some kind of speech right now or not," Patrick said. "I thought this was a Q & A situation."
She regrouped quickly and spent about 10 minutes entertaining, and answering questions from, corporate types ranging from what it's like to start the Indy 500 (great) to would she please knock Kyle Busch into the wall in her next NASCAR race (um, no) to how she balances her hectic schedule.
"There's no balance," Patrick responded. "I work every day."
This was no exception. Patrick and the other IndyCar drivers began their two days of preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park in suburban Birmingham on Wednesday. Testing was delayed about 90 minutes because of cold weather, limiting the drivers' laps.
Patrick was 18th-fastest at 114.149 mph but only ran 36 laps because of the shortened day.
"It went OK. She's only been in the car twice this whole winter and this is the second time," said Kyle Moyer, general manager of Andretti Autosport. "It's a matter of getting back up to speed and stuff like that.
"She's driven an IndyCar so long, it's not really going to change the way she drives it or anything like that. It's just the time in the seat lost because she was in NASCAR. Then because it wasn't warm so we didn't get a lot of laps in, so that was a double whammy."
For Patrick it was just a brief return to the open-wheel circuit before a much longer one.
She's scheduled to fly Las Vegas after Thursday's session for Saturday's Nationwide Series Sam's Town 300.
And then? "I'll be home Saturday night," she said.
Patrick said she has only had a couple of nights there in the last month, but she's hardly complaining about her packed itinerary. She's scheduled to race 31 times this year, up from 17 last year but points out that "is still short of a NASCAR schedule." Patrick will take a four-month hiatus from NASCAR to focus on IndyCar after the Vegas race.
Asked if she was still having fun, she responded quickly: "Yeah, it's fun. I'm really happy to see a room this full," Patrick said. "It's been really fun."
She noted the video and still cameras as usual pointed toward her. "Not that I don't like you photographers and cameramen but I've started to ignore you a little bit and just do my job."
The fans' questions ranged from tongue-in-cheek to almost gushingly eager.
She deftly steered clear of any potential controversy when one fan of NASCAR — but clearly not Busch — asked her to send the driver into the wall next chance she got.
Patrick quipped that he just wanted to see two "temperamental" drivers fight.
"What's the problem? You don't like him," she asked, noting that Busch has been complimentary of her during her foray into stock car racing.
She finished 31st in the Nationwide race he won in California, three laps behind Busch and only seven cars from the rear.
Patrick could easily understand one fan's fascination with what it's like to start the Indy 500.
"I get goose bumps watching it," she said. "I'm sure a lot of other people do. It's a very special event. It's the best race in the world."
She finished 35th in her much-anticipated NASCAR debut at Daytona, getting caught up in a 12-car crash a little more than halfway through the race.
The race organizers at Barber Motorsports were clearly glad to see her coming to their debut race in NASCAR country, down Interstate 20 from Talladega Superspeedway.
Event promoter Gene Hallman told her he "prayed" that she would compete here.
"Boy, would we love to see you in the victory circle here," Hallman said.
"I always pray to win, too," Patrick quipped. "Is that wrong?"
(This version CORRECTS SUBS 4th graf to correct spelling of Busch.)