Danica Patrick finishes sixth in stock car debut


Danica Patrick proved this much Saturday: Her desire to drive stock cars is not a novelty act.

Despite a collision with another car that briefly dropped her deep in the field and her unfamiliarity with the famed “drafting” at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick drove an impressive race and stormed back to finish sixth in her first stock car race.

“I had so much fun in a race car today,” an ebullient Patrick told a media swarm that greeted her in the garage after the race. “I can’t wait to do it again.”

The 80-lap ARCA Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 -- won by Bobby Gerhart of Pennsylvania -- was Patrick’s first step toward racing on the much larger NASCAR circuit in and around her full schedule on the Izod IndyCar Series.

Indeed, the race essentially was a practice round for Patrick before she immediately jumps to NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series either next weekend here or Feb. 20 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

Patrick said she expects to decide Monday where her Nationwide debut will be. She’s driving for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver.

To be sure, the overall quality and skill level of the developmental ARCA Series is not on par with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where several drivers in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series such as Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton also compete.

“There’s a lot of experience out there [in NASCAR]; I don’t know that she’s ready for it,” said Kelley Earnhardt, JR Motorsports’ general manager and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sister. “It’s just going to have to be something that we all discuss.”

Either way, Patrick, who normally drives the lightweight, sleek Indy-style cars, appeared a quick study of her 3,000-pound No. 7 Chevrolet stock car as she banged fenders with other cars and maneuvered in the draft, where the cars run nose-to-tail.

She was coached throughout by veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin and former crew chief.

“I think she showed us she was able to drive, definitely,” Kelley Earnhardt said. “She did a great job for her first race.”

Patrick started 12th and, in the first half of the race, stayed close to the leaders in a single-car draft and avoided several multicar crashes that mostly occurred behind her.

But as Patrick came out of the fourth turn on lap 54, she was alongside the car of Nelson Piquet Jr. -- another former open-wheel racer who is trying out stock car racing -- and they scraped each other.

Patrick then began spinning, but she deftly kept the car from hitting the outside wall, steering it instead through the infield grass and onto the pavement of pit road.

“The car does get pretty loose when you get hit,” she said. “You can see I was racing by all of the marks on the car.”

After getting repairs, Patrick dropped to 24th and it appeared she might be destined for a mediocre finish.

Patrick thought otherwise.

“I really said, ‘What the heck, I don’t really care, I made it this far, let’s see what else we can do,’ ” she said.

Patrick then stepped on it and steadily climbed back through the field.

“I bumped from the side, I bumped from the front, I got bumped from the back and I learned a lot,” she said. “I just wanted to be smart, make it to the end, and I wanted to learn something in this race.”

Kelley Earnhardt said even Patrick’s spinout “was good for her, to go back in the back [of the field] and be able to come up through there and learn, because that’s what she needs to do if she’s going to be around these cars.”

Patrick is scheduled to drive in a dozen Nationwide races this season in addition to her normal driving duties in the IndyCar series, where in 2008 she became the first woman to win a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel race with a victory in Japan. It’s been her only IndyCar win so far.

Former off-road motorcycle racing champion Ricky Carmichael, who also has switched to stock car racing, finished seventh in a Toyota after starting 14th.