Danica Patrick entered her debut season in NASCAR without setting specific goals or expectations.

But when asked last December whether she could handle racing as hard as she could just to finish 20th, she had a typical racer response:

“I hope to go out there and win every single race and we’ll see what happens from there,” the JR Motorsports driver said.

She knew she would have a hard time winning a race but that’s the racer mentality to go out and want to win. Maybe she didn’t realize that just finishing 20th would be a chore.

She didn’t accomplish that feat until the final of her 13 Nationwide Series races this year when she placed 19th at Homestead.

“It’s been an up-and-down year,” Patrick said prior to the Homestead race. “It’s been a character-building year, a humbling year. I did know coming into this season that it was going to be the hardest year I have ever had.

“Still nothing can really prepare you for the hardest year you have ever had. It sucks at times. It’s still challenging. But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned to see the good in what seems to be a bad weekend, or at least to me anyway. People are always trying to remind me there were good weekends, but unless I have a good result, I don’t feel like that.”

Patrick said she felt uncomfortable at the beginning. From just figuring out how to get in the car to how to deal with the excessive heat of the stock car, the 28-year-old IndyCar Series star knew virtually nothing about stock cars when she began testing last December.

She had an OK day until an accident ended her debut at Daytona. But once she got on the tracks where she had to find the best line for her car and get in a rhythm lap after lap, she struggled.

Her second race, at Auto Club Speedway, was awful as she ended up 31st, three laps down. Returning to the track later in the year, she finished but was running respectable until she tangled with James Buescher.

“Going back there a second time, part of me was really nervous,” Patrick said. “Because I thought, ‘Wow, if I don’t do better, that’s not going to be good. This is a true test this weekend.’

“It did go a lot better. So that was good, and it was a lot of fun. The car was something I felt comfortable with and I could put where I wanted to put and I was passing people. It was fun to see a car, to catch it and pass it. It was a good feeling. There are a lot of times where you just run and you see the same thing in front of you or they just go away.”

Short tracks might have been the toughest for her with finishes of 30th at Loudon and 35th at Dover.

Her average starting spot for the 13 races was 26.9. Her average finish was 28th.

Still, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. called the year “a success” considering how little Patrick knew about stock cars before her initial season.

“At least I feel just more comfortable and less overwhelmed,” Patrick said. “I get in the car and I feel comfortable now in general with all the little things about what the switches are all about and when to hit them.”

Patrick also had her share of fender banging on the track. In her next-to-last race at Phoenix, she retaliated against Baker Curb Racing rookie Alex Kennedy.

“It seems like in these cars, that there’s a certain amount of respect you earn from giving room and running fair, and there’s also a certain amount of respect you earn from not giving in and letting them push you around,” Patrick said. “I almost need the go-ahead. I don’t want to be a jerk out there. I don’t know what that even means.

“I don’t know how much is too much or not enough, so when Tony Jr. said, ‘You’ve just got to go up there and get him and that’s how you get him back,’ then I was like, ‘It’s on. Fine.’ So that is what I did. I caught him and I hit him.”

In 2011, Patrick will compete in another 13 races for JR Motorsports. Her IndyCar contract expires at the end of 2011 (it includes a one-year option for 2012), and Patrick could make a decision whether to compete in NASCAR full time.

The IndyCar Series has more road courses than Patrick would like, but it still has the Indianapolis 500. It also is increasing its manufacturer involvement with a new car and engine package set for 2012.

NASCAR has a much better television package with Fox, TNT, and ABC/ESPN while IndyCar has a deal where most of the races are on Versus while a few are on ABC/ESPN.

Patrick did not have a good year in 2011 in IndyCar as she finished eighth in the standings, although she finished second at Texas and Homestead.

“At the end of the day, I’m always going to look at where I have the opportunity to run the best and where I’m going to have the most fun,” she said.

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