NASCAR: Danica getting feisty
By Hank Kurz Jr.
RICHMOND, Va. — Danica Patrick gets fired up when she’s watching a NASCAR race and tempers flare.
“I’m a fan, too. I’m a consumer. I love to see fights. I love to see crashes,” she said. “I love to see drivers being honest with their emotions and letting everyone know what they think.”
The IndyCar star also looks forward to joining the fray full time next season, when she plans to run the entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule and eight to 10 Sprint Cup races.
“Oddly enough, I would say that the older I get, the more aggressive I get. Is that weird?” she said in Richmond, where she qualified 32nd and finished 18th last Friday night. “I didn’t start like a Brazilian driver and go out ‘Whoooo’ and hit everything and figure it out later. I started out much more patient with other drivers and patient with myself and respectful.
“Now I’m much more of the attitude — and it’s probably because I have fenders these days — but much more of the attitude that ‘Don’t mess with me. I will hit you back,’” she said.
Yes, in NASCAR’s time of ‘Boys, have at it,’ the girl wants in, too.
“I think you have to,” she said of retaliating. “You’ve got fenders and you take care of business yourself and there’s very few penalties for driving carelessly or aggressively with other drivers because they don’t really need to. You just give it back to them because you can.”
But that’s not to say she plans to wreak havoc once she’s one of the boys.
Instead, she knows she still has a ton to learn, a point that has been reinforced each time she finds herself in an ill-handling car and struggles to communicate to her crew what needs to be changed and with what level of comfort is reasonable to expect.
The point was driven home during a test session in Georgia this year when she felt like the car was loose all morning, and that pushing it any harder would cause it to spin.
“It took half the day before we finally made a shock adjustment and it was like, ‘… Yeah, I do like these cars. I remember,’” she said, laughing. “I’d forgotten how good it can feel. … I drove a car that was loose for a half a day because I just didn’t know any better.”
That inexperience is why Tony Stewart, who owns the car she will drive in the Sprint Cup races next year, intends to make sure Patrick keeps her expectations in check.
“Your rookie season is all about learning,” he said, “and the steps get tougher the higher you get in racing. I guess it’s my job as an owner that we keep her goals attainable.”
Patrick, though, will hardly be a stock car novice when her Cup debut arrives. She has driven in 21 Nationwide Series races the past two seasons, and after finishing no better than 19th in 13 starts in 2010, has three top-10s with a best of fourth in eight races this year.
Kevin Harvick has seen enough to suspect she’s only going to get better.
“I think she’s made good progression with her on-the-racetrack-driving part of it,” he said. “Off the racetrack is going to be great, as usual, and I think it’s going to be great for the whole sport in general. But Danica’s a very competitive person. She’s not here to just collect a check and ride around. She wants to be competitive week in and week out and that’s what I like about her. She will put in the time and the effort to be competitive.”
And in the interim, she’s fine getting on-the-job training under a microscope.
“I think of it like I’ve got to prove that I’m a great driver. I don’t really think of it because I’m a girl, I feel like I have more to prove. I don’t,” she said. “There are lots of drivers that want to get the rides that I’m getting and whether they are girls or guys.”
She’s also not buying the idea that she’s off limits to confrontation if she messes up.
“If I can come down and talk to you, you can come down and talk to me,” she said. “Handle it how you want to handle it. I suppose it wouldn’t be a good idea to strike me, but it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to strike someone else, would it?”
On some level, she almost seems eager to get in that first dustup.
“There’s twice as many races, there’s twice as many opportunities for people to tick you off, and twice as many cars,” she said. “There’s probably 10 times more passing out there, so there’s a lot of opportunities for drivers to do things that would tick you off.
“That’s what makes it exciting, I think.”
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The Associated Press