Danica proves she's a natural in stock car

JR Motorsports team owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick could not keep their eyes off the TV screens Saturday afternoon.

The pair, along with Daytona 500 polesitter Mark Martin and his crew chief Alan Gustafson, did their best to politely field questions in the media center after securing the front row for the Great American Race. But the ARCA race was underway.

There were 43 cars on the racetrack during Saturday's ARCA romp, but SPEED was focused on Danica Patrick's debut and so were the men at the table.

Certainly, Earnhardt has a vested interest in his protege. But the Danica effect had already pervaded the room before the first caution flag fell.

"I'm still under the radar compared to Danica," her GoDaddy.com teammate Martin admitted modestly. "Even though we got the pole, we're still under the radar. That's cool. That's my style."

Martin's style is a complete contrast to the 27-year-old IndyCar darling. Earnhardt would opt for a similar low-key existence, but his name won't allow him that luxury. But the crowds that gather around the No. 88 team's pits won't equal the mayhem that followed Patrick's first stock car start.

The anticipation surrounding the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 exceeded any ARCA race in the history of the series. Danicapaloosa promised to deliver a ready-made female racer that could cut through the barriers and find the fast lane to stock car's top ranks.

Patrick had proved she could race at high speeds throughout the course of her career. Patrick proved she could win races in the Izod IndyCar Series. And Patrick proved she could be consistent by finishing top five in the point standings last season.

However, her greatest criticism has been the inability to pass on the outside to improve her position in open wheel. And on a handling track such as Daytona, the ability to find the most productive line is the difference between the express lane to the front pack or getting hung out to dry.

But Patrick had two of the best restrictor plate teachers in the business -- crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Junior. Although Earnhardt says he tried "not to get in her ear too much," she credited him after moving to the high line to advance 18 positions in the final 24 laps after a near spin almost ended her night.

"I know what Dale Jr. sees in this outside line here because you don't have to lift up there and everybody down below -- I noticed -- whether you are fifth, sixth or 12th back there you are having to check up so much down the straights," Patrick said. "And if you are on the outside you just keep your foot in it. I had so much momentum going by everyone and I took a couple of chances and dove in between a couple of times, but it worked out. It didn't work out halfway through the race when I held my line down on the yellow, but that's what they told us to do in the drivers meeting.

"I definitely learned how to use the fenders a little bit. I think I felt the fenders too, I'm not 100 percent sure if I got hit in the dogleg and then in (Turns) 1 and 2. Even if I did, I don't really care because I know what it feels like now to kinda get pushed up the track."

Patrick's performance impressed her immediate boss Kelley Earnhardt, a fellow racer whose ascent in racing was stalled by the usual obstacles -- money, career and motherhood.

"I think she showed us she was able to drive," Kelley Earnhardt said. "One time I saw her up on the high side, she pulled down low. I kept thinking, 'Come on, let's pull off an Earnhardt. Pass 18 cars in three laps and win this thing."'

Patrick even impressed the pundits who have followed the diminutive driver throughout her open wheel career called her an absolute natural stock car racer. Lyn St. James, who was the first female Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year 13 seasons before Patrick, described Danica's coming out party as "awesome."

"She looked like she was having a good time out there," St. James said. "She found her legs. She looks like she found her calling. The car control she had in that spin was amazing. A spotter can't talk you through that.

"It's going to take time to develop a comfort level and learn who she can trust. Those cars don't act as stable -- particularly in the draft -- as Indy cars do. But she was awesome. You can drive a race car if you're a good race car driver, but it's a completely different thing to connect with a race car and she did that."

Prior to the race, Junior said he hoped to "give her a good car and when she mashes the gas it puts a smile on her face. As long as she's having fun out on the racetrack, I'll enjoy that part of it."

Although Patrick had to be closeted in her hauler on Saturday night until the awaiting crowd calmed down, she thoroughly enjoyed the competition part of the equation. She not only survived her first test in the stock car world, Patrick put on an Earnhardt-style show when crew chief Tony Eury Jr., said it was "go time."

So bring on the next test, Junior. Danica is ready for more fun.