Danica Patrick's next opportunity to press the issue on the track… (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press )
Now that Danica Patrick is halfway through her first full season in NASCAR, one question that keeps shadowing her is when will Patrick start rubbing fenders more often with other drivers to see if she can charge her way to the front — and earn more respect from her rivals.
The driver celebrated more for her glamour and popularity than her racing record has in a word been, middling, in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series this year — her finishes haven't been particularly good or bad.
But Patrick, 30, has fast Chevrolets prepared by her team, JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by NASCAR superstarDale Earnhardt Jr.She's also learning more each race about handling the often unwieldy stock cars, protecting her position and building her confidence.
So now it's a matter of how skilled Patrick can become at pressing the issue on the racetrack.
Patrick predicted she will.
"As my comfort level with the car comes up and I get faster, the aggression will be there," she said in an interview. "I think there's been steady improvement."
Her next opportunity comes Saturday when she returns to familiar confines, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for a Nationwide race that's part of a weekend of racing capped by Sunday's Brickyard 400, one of the crown-jewel events of NASCAR's first-tier Sprint Cup Series.
It was at Indianapolis that Patrick first achieved fame as a driver in the Izod IndyCar Series, starting with her rookie year in 2005, when she briefly led the Indy 500 and finished fourth. After winning one IndyCar race in seven years, and becoming that sport's most popular driver, Patrick moved to NASCAR this season.
In 18 Nationwide starts this year, Patrick has qualified to start among the top 10 in six races. But she has only one top-10 finish, an eighth at Texas, and her average finish is 20th. That's left Patrick ninth in the Nationwide point standings out of 16 drivers who have competed in every Nationwide race so far this year.
Patrick also is driving in 10 Cup races this year for Stewart-Haas Racing, co-owned by reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart, to give her a taste of NASCAR's top series. In her three Cup races so far — at Daytona, Darlington and Charlotte — her best finish was 30th.
To be sure, Patrick remains on a steep learning curve after moving from the sleek, 1,560-pound Indy-style cars to the 3,400-pound, boxier stock cars. In IndyCar races drivers typically finesse their way into positions on the track, rather than forcing their way to the front, because any bump could send a driver and car airborne.
But in NASCAR roughing it up with competitors is part of the driving style. And it's been tough for Patrick to adapt to how stock car drivers bump, grind and otherwise maneuver their cars in close quarters. She's also racing at some NASCAR tracks for the first time.
Last month Patrick was in the top 10 for much of the day at Michigan International Speedway. But twice drivers got their cars close enough to upset the air flow around her car, causing her to spin out. She finished 18th.
The next week, she was headed for a top-five finish on the curvy Road America course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., when she was bumped from behind and spun by Jacques Villeneuve. Patrick finished 12th.
Her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., griped that some drivers were intentionally trying to upset Patrick's car because they had the attitude "We don't want the girl to outrun us."
When asked about that, Earnhardt said last month that "even before I raced with her, I knew she wasn't the kind of person you run around pushing buttons with.
"Some guys don't see it that way, I guess, and push her around on the racetrack," Earnhardt said. "She will just have to settle that however she wants."
Patrick said the key to overcoming such setbacks not only is experience but also having a strong car.
"I'm learning about how to press the issue if I want to, or not lose your momentum," she said. "I definitely realize that I need to hold my ground well, and part of that is having a car that can do it."
For the most part, "I'm giving everybody respect," Patrick said. "If they want to change that and show me disrespect, that's when you have to hold your ground."
In addition, Patrick said her qualifying runs are improving — she has started 10th or higher in four of her last seven races — and her restarts after caution periods have improved in recent races.
And although Patrick ran selected Nationwide races last year, she's still effectively a rookie this season, and she said repeatedly banging into other drivers won't win her respect.
"You've got to kind of earn your way in there," she said. "And I don't think the best way to do that is to hit everyone and say, 'I'm here.' "