Danica Patrick is as curious as everyone else to see how well she performs in her second NASCAR stock car race Saturday.
Patrick made her debut last weekend in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, but her race ended after a car wreck just past the halfway point on the high-banked Daytona International Speedway. Her next race is the Stater Bros. 300 at the much flatter, two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
"I don't know what to expect [at Fontana]," Patrick said in an interview, adding that she and her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., "haven't really talked about it too much" ahead of her first practice here on Friday.
That's because, after her Daytona race last Saturday, Patrick spent two days at her Arizona home before arriving in Southern California to start a flurry of media appearances, including "The Ellen Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
Patrick, 27, also isn't sure what to expect here because the last time she raced at Auto Club Speedway was in 2005 at the end of her rookie year in what is now called the Izod IndyCar Series.
Now the IndyCar series' most popular driver, Patrick is trying NASCAR racing in and around her IndyCar schedule to see how she likes stock car racing and whether she can be competitive. She plans to drive in a dozen Nationwide Series races this season in a car prepared by JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver. Her arrival has injected NASCAR with a fresh dose of "Danicamania," the same popularity that's surrounded her since she nearly became the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 in her rookie year.
Indeed, even Earnhardt marveled at the attention Patrick received at the Daytona race last Saturday. And after a year in which NASCAR's attendance and television ratings sagged, the sport is delighted with the extra attention.
The widely held belief is that Patrick is preparing for an eventual move to NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series, home to such drivers as Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. The Sprint Cup race in Fontana is the Auto Club 500 on Sunday.
In the Daytona race, Patrick started 15th but finished a disappointing 35th after being collected in a 12-car wreck. Even so, Patrick said she became more at ease with each of the 69 laps she did complete.
"[At first] I wasn't super happy with how the car felt," she said. But after her first pit stop, "the car felt so much different, it was so much more balanced.
"I had a much easier time with it then," Patrick said. "I picked up a little bit of confidence, naturally. I was feeling really comfortable at the end. Then, obviously, the accident happened."
But Patrick acknowledged that she still faces a steep learning curve with stock cars, which are heavier and more difficult to control than sleek Indy cars.
"I'm learning as I go," she said. "At this point, I don't always know what to ask for" in terms of adjusting her No. 7 Chevrolet during a race. "I don't know what's going to happen [to the car] over a 30- or 40-lap run."
She's expected to learn a lot more in Saturday's race, which many see as her first true test in NASCAR.
Unlike the Daytona track where the cars draft nose-to-tail in multi-car packs, at Auto Club Speedway the cars tend to get more strung out and passing is more difficult.
Some of Patrick's fellow drivers said they'll give her slightly more breathing space, for now, as they would any rookie at Fontana, where drivers reach 200 mph on the front straightaway.
"I'll just give her a little bit of extra room," said Carl Edwards, who drives in both the Cup and Nationwide series. "I'll treat Danica just like anybody running their first Nationwide race at a place like [Fontana].
"I've smacked the fence there all by myself in practice, I know how that place can really lull you into a false sense of security. It's wide and it doesn't feel like you're going that fast, but you are."
And Kyle Busch, the reigning Nationwide champion, said "I'm not apprehensive one bit" about Patrick being in the field. "She wouldn't have gotten the opportunity if it wasn't for her skills. She'll be fine."