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AUTO RACING

NASCAR newbie Danica Patrick plans to race at Fontana

Indy car driver who's branching out aims to enter the Nationwide Series event at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 20.

December 18, 2009|By Jim Peltz
  • Danica Patrick talks to members of the media about her plans to drive the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Dale Earnhart Jr.'s JR Motorsports team next season.
Danica Patrick talks to members of the media about her plans to drive the… (Jason Smith / Getty Images )

When Danica Patrick became a rookie sensation in 2005 in what is now the Izod IndyCar Series, she capped the year with a race in Southern California.

Five years later, IndyCar's most popular driver might make her NASCAR stock-car racing debut at the same location.

Patrick, who recently announced plans to try stock-car racing on a limited basis next year in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, said Thursday that she plans to enter the Feb. 20 Nationwide race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

She'll be driving a Chevrolet prepared by JR Motorsports, a team whose owners are led by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.

The Nationwide season opener is Feb. 13 at Daytona International Speedway. At a news conference with Earnhardt in Mooresville, N.C., Patrick said it was still undecided whether she would enter the Daytona race but that she would drive in the Stater Bros. 300 in Fontana.

"As for the exciting, big Daytona race -- [the] Nationwide race -- we have yet to decide on that," Patrick said. "There's still some things to figure out. We'll have to decide if that's the right opportunity."

Kelley Earnhardt, JR Motorsports' general manager and Earnhardt's sister, said the team also would field a Nationwide car for Patrick at the Feb. 27 race at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and that they hoped Patrick could enter up to 13 races next year in and around her IndyCar schedule.

Patrick's season with the IndyCar series starts March 14 in Brazil and ends Oct. 2 in Florida. Her IndyCar schedule includes another Southern California stop, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18.

The Nationwide race at Daytona precedes NASCAR's crown jewel, the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14, in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series.

Patrick noted that the Nationwide race at Daytona would be filled with experienced Cup drivers, raising the question of whether it would be wiser for her to make her Nationwide debut a week later at the wide, two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

"So, is [Daytona] the right time for me to start or not? You only get one grand opening," she said. "We want it to be the right opportunity."

But Patrick does plan to get the feel for stock-car racing at Daytona on Feb. 6 when she races in the ARCA series, a lower-level series separate from NASCAR. She was scheduled to start testing today in an ARCA car at the famed Daytona Beach, Fla., track.

Patrick, 27, rose to fame when she nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in her rookie year. That season ended with a race at Auto Club Speedway, then called California Speedway, where Patrick started fourth and finished 18th after an accident. Indy-style cars no longer race at that track.

In five years of driving Indy cars, Patrick has won one race -- in Motegi, Japan, in 2008, when she became the first woman to win a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel race.

She finished a career-best fifth in the IndyCar series' point standings this season. Her highest race finish was third in the Indy 500.

After Patrick's NASCAR announcement Thursday, Auto Club Speedway said general admission tickets to the Feb. 20 Nationwide race would start at $30.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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