Patrick eager to learn in Daytona

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Danica Patrick is poised to take that next step.

Patrick performed convincingly in her stock car debut last weekend. Among ARCA Series regulars, she held her own and survived a mid-race spin to finish sixth overall.

But Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway will prove to be a top-level test for the 27-year-old.

The Nationwide Series most closely resembles NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. With the talent and technology, Patrick will compete against teams that are on the same level as hers in terms of equipment and personnel.

The race distance will be 100 miles longer than her ARCA run. One hundred miles to prove her staying power, make more mistakes or get taken out by others' errors.

And oh yeah, unlike the drivers she competed against last week, she'll also be competing against the likes of two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, former Nationwide Series champions and perennial Cup title contenders Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and her own team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Those facts are nothing new to the Indy car superstar, but she's more than willing to face them head on come race day.

"This is a whole 'nother ball of wax this weekend," Patrick said. "This car is not as easy to drive. There's a lot of really great drivers out there, really great teams out there. Everybody is running close. You know, everybody wants to make that next step up to Cup.

"I didn't shy away from saying that I had so much fun last weekend in the ARCA race. I'm still having fun now. It's a little bit more of a challenge, for sure. So it's not just put your foot down, drive around wherever you want out there. You've got to be up on the wheel a little bit in this car. But that's OK. I'm still enjoying it a lot."

Patrick, who will start Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 in 15th after rain wiped out qualifying Friday, will be in the first of 13 Nationwide Series races she runs in her debut stock car season in 2010.

And though she has been the center of attention since arriving at Speedweeks in Daytona, a good result will be difficult to come by.

"Everybody should expect to let her learn," Stewart said. "There is a lot of focus on her and pressure. She's done a great job of dealing with that. Everybody's got to remember she's a rookie. Anything that she does is not like she didn't meet a goal or she exceeded a goal.

"This is a learning experience this week. If everybody treats it that way, then everything will be fine."

That, more than anything, is the most important point to remember Saturday. There will be intense attention paid to her by the TV cameras and the fans in the stands, but this is the first step in what will be a long-term transition from open-wheelers to stock cars.

That's not to say she can't win. Given the unpredictability of restrictor-plate races, she can certainly keep her car out of trouble and find her way to Victory Lane. But her inexperience can also make for a short day.

Either way, it'll be a new learning experience.

"I don't doubt there are going to be hard days -- just like in IndyCar -- where you just want to park it," Patrick said. "You're just saving your life every corner. But, you know, all in all, these are really fun cars to drive. I love the racing. I love there's passing, I love there's side-by-side. Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it's fun for the fans, too, and they're important. And they're good shows.

"This is a much different situation for me. So I'm glad to be out there, though, because I really, really need the practice. My goal purely is to finish, just to finish the race and log 300 miles of practice."