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AUTO RACING

NASCAR's Danica Patrick seeks to get her learning up to speed

Heading into the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway, the driver has had a slight change of attitude.

March 22, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Danica Patrick has created quite a buzz since making a full-time switch to NASCAR this year.
Danica Patrick has created quite a buzz since making a full-time switch… (Russell LaBounty / Associated…)

The buzz surrounding Danica Patrick still is running on all cylinders even though the popular driver, essentially a rookie in her first full season in NASCAR's minor leagues, is off to a so-so start on the racetrack this year.

So as she pushes further into the long NASCAR season, Patrick is trying to focus more on what she's learning each week than where she's finishing — at least for now.

She has yet to post a top-10 finish after four races in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series this year. Her next attempt is Saturday in the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

This has prompted a slight change of attitude for Patrick, who has also spent her career nurturing her popularity with countless marketing campaigns and sexy advertising appearances.

After spending seven seasons competing on the IndyCar circuit, Patrick moved to NASCAR full time this year to run the 33-race Nationwide schedule in a car prepared by JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Patrick, who turns 30 on Sunday, also is driving in 10 races in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup series for Stewart-Haas Racing, a team co-owned by reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Patrick drove in selected races in the Nationwide Series the prior two years while still running a full IndyCar schedule. Her best Nationwide finish was fourth at Las Vegas last year, a record high for a woman in a national NASCAR series.

This year she started smartly by winning the Nationwide pole position in Daytona. But a crash relegated her to a 38th-place finish in that race; then she finished 21st in Phoenix, 12th in Las Vegas and 19th last weekend in Bristol, Tenn., two laps behind the leaders. Overall, Patrick is 12th in the Nationwide title standings.

"There's definitely been progress in certain places, but I just think the results haven't necessarily shown that," Patrick said Thursday during a photo shoot in Santa Monica for Tissot watches, one of her NASCAR sponsors.

"I'm only disappointed that the numbers aren't better, but I'm not disappointed in myself necessarily because there were lots of things that have been better," she said. "My qualifying has been better at certain times, passing people has been happening better, pit stops are better.

"I get frustrated with the results sometimes, but that doesn't completely represent what happened in the race," she said.

Elliott Sadler, who has won two of the first four Nationwide races this year, is among the drivers urging her to be patient and focus on finishing races.

After his Phoenix win, Sadler said he had told Patrick that "if you just see the checkered flag at every event" then "you will learn what you need to learn ... and you will be where you want to be in the points."

Even so, Patrick said she would be disappointed if she didn't finish in the top 10 at one of the next four races: Fontana and Texas — "both of those are good tracks for me," she said — and then Richmond, Va., and Talladega, Ala.

At her last visit to the two-mile Fontana oval in October 2010, Patrick was running 12th in that Nationwide event and was on the lead lap in the closing stages when her No. 7 Chevrolet suddenly was hit from behind, sending Patrick crashing into the wall. She finished 30th.

Patrick has the benefit of being in JR Motorsports' strong cars but said she still has areas in which to improve.

One is restarts after caution periods. The race at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track "really drove it home" because "I was up to sixth at one point after a pit stop and, if I had just been able to hang on" during the restarts she might have finished much better, Patrick said.

"It's just been about [maintaining good] track position," she said.

In any case, Patrick said it's a case of "reminding myself that it's still a process, especially in NASCAR with so many races. We have 30 to go or something [this season]. There's lots of time."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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