Published May 11, 2012
DARLINGTON, S.C. – Tony Stewart has very modest goals for Danica Patrick's debut at Darlington Raceway.
He knew "the Track Too Tough to Tame" is going to be difficult, which is why he put Saturday night's race on her Sprint Cup Series schedule. Patrick is scheduled to run 10 Cup events this season, and Darlington will be her second start.
"This is a hard place. It's not an easy track," Stewart said Friday. "It's going to be a long weekend for her. It's like I told her, I said, 'You are going to hate me by the end of tomorrow night.' She goes, 'Yeah, but I'm going to love you next year when we come back and run this full-time.' She understands the value of why we picked this as one of the races.
"I think she is keeping the big picture in mind."
Patrick had plenty of track time Friday to get acquainted with NASCAR's first superspeedway. Between the Cup and Nationwide Series, she had nearly five hours of practice, plus two qualifying sessions and Friday night's Nationwide Series race.
And, like almost every driver, she quickly picked up her "Darlington stripe," when she slapped the wall her first time on the track.
"Getting pretty cozy with it," she joked between practices. "As a driver, my comfort level with the wall is definitely medium. I don't think that even in IndyCar I liked being up by the wall. There are drivers definitely more comfortable than I was. Coming into these stock cars, I definitely got more comfortable getting up higher and higher, but here at Darlington, you're riding the wall.
"You're not kind of using it as a reference, you're riding the wall. It's a whole new level of getting comfortable with it. You're definitely as a driver thread the needle out here."
Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion and owner of Patrick's Cup car, thought it was helpful for her to learn she's not the only one who struggles at Darlington.
Two-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson, the five-time NASCAR champion, hit the wall himself in the first practice. So Stewart's main goal is for Patrick to just turn as many laps as possible this weekend. Her Daytona 500 didn't go off as planned, as Patrick was involved in a Lap 1 wreck and completed only 138 of the 202 laps.
"She has walked down through the garage and Jimmie Johnson has the right side about half knocked off," Stewart said. "There are a bunch of guys that are veterans here that already got big stripes just like she has on the side. She realizes this isn't an easy place. I think in her head she is smart enough to know that this is supposed to be a hard weekend. This is going to be one of the tougher places next year, too, that is why it has been put on the schedule."
Stewart has firsthand knowledge of how difficult Darlington can be. Although he has 10 career top-10 finishes, he's winless in 19 career starts. It makes Darlington one of only two active tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule where Stewart has yet to visit Victory Lane.
He won at Las Vegas in March to cross that track off his list, so only Darlington and Kentucky remain. He never won at Rockingham, either, but NASCAR no longer races the Cup Series at the North Carolina track.
"There are some tracks that have been easier tracks for me and then there are tracks that have been tougher," he said. "This one, not getting a victory here, that is proof this is a tougher track for me."
Between Patrick's introduction to the track and Stewart's quest to pick up a Darlington win, his focus had clearly moved forward and was no longer on his tongue-and-cheek assessment Sunday of racing at Talladega.
For 13 questions over four minutes, Stewart praised Talladega with dripping sarcasm. Aside from apologizing to the fans for the race not having more wrecks, he suggested Talladega be turned into a figure eight and the drivers should run it backward beginning at the halfway point.
He was in a pleasant mood on Friday, but not interested in discussing his post-race comments from Talladega.
"I wasn't trying to deliver a message," he said. "The good thing is that I'm in Darlington this week and I'm happy to be in Darlington this week. I haven't won a Southern 500 yet, so I'm excited with getting Vegas under our belt earlier this year — this is a big week for us and I'm glad to be focusing on it."