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NASCAR-bound Danica Patrick makes stock car debut

MOTOR RACING

She qualifies to start 12th Saturday in the 43-car ARCA Series race at Daytona. ARCA is a training ground for the NASCAR circuit.

February 06, 2010|By Jim Peltz

Reporting from Daytona Beach, Fla. — How will she do?

It's the overarching question here Saturday when Danica Patrick, who gained fame as a driver of sleek Indy-style cars, makes her debut driving 3,000-pound stock cars.

With the full force of her promotional machine behind her, Patrick starts 12th Saturday in a 43-car race in the ARCA Series at the high-banked Daytona International Speedway.

ARCA is a minor league series separate from the much larger NASCAR, and Patrick plans to quickly jump to NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series either next weekend here or Feb. 20 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

She's scheduled to drive in a dozen Nationwide races this year in addition to competing in the Izod IndyCar Series, where "Danicamania" was born in 2005 when she nearly won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

"She's well-followed, I think, even by non-motor-sports folks. When you say 'Danica Patrick,' they know who she is," said NASCAR President Mike Helton.

Patrick is driving a car prepared by JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.

Jimmie Johnson, who has won an unprecedented four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, said "I think it's great" to have Patrick in stock car racing. "We need as many eyes on our sport as possible," he said.

But first comes her ARCA race, populated with many less-experienced drivers cutting their teeth in stock-car racing, and known for having an inordinate number of wrecks. "You need to wear a helmet if you watch it from the stands," quipped NASCAR Cup driver Scott Speed.

"My first ARCA race at Talladega is still one of the ones I remember, for how crazy it was," Speed said. Patrick's race is likely to be one of the most watched ARCA races in the series' 57-year history, and a prelude to the media circus awaiting Patrick when she joins NASCAR.

On Friday, a throng of media members followed her every move as Patrick climbed into her No. 7 Chevrolet on pit road and then qualified for the ARCA race. As Patrick's car was intermittently pushed forward while she awaited her turn to qualify, the scene had a paparazzi flavor as two dozen photographers and television camera crews shuffled along next to her and jostled for position.

The venue adds to the uncertainty about how Patrick might finish Saturday. At the 2.5-mile Daytona oval, the cars race in tightly bunched packs and even a slight mistake by one driver can spark a multi-car wreck.

Regardless, Patrick nearly achieved her initial goal here: to qualify among the 10 fastest cars at the race's start.

"That way I'm with the faster, maybe more experienced drivers up front," she said after qualifying. "I like my car and I think it's going to run really well in the race."

Sam Hornish Jr. knows what Patrick faces. A three-time IndyCar Series champion, Hornish moved to NASCAR in 2008 and has struggled. "You can look and see how difficult the transition has been for me," he said. "I know it's a very, very difficult change."

Juan Pablo Montoya, another Cup driver who came from open-wheel racing, met with Patrick on Thursday night to offer advice and urged her to get help from other Cup drivers. "It is exciting to see how she is going to do," he said.

But ultimately, he added, "if she does well, [it's] good for the sport; if she does bad, [it's] still good for the sport."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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