Danica Patrick Qualifies 12th in her Nascar Debut

The hood of a stock car is about two feet higher than the nose of the open-wheel vehicles Danica Patrick is used to driving. But in her very first qualifying effort in a stock car, Patrick showed just how comfortable she is with her new machine.

Emerging from her bright-green No. 7, Patrick deftly threw her right hand flat on top of the hood, planted her left on her hip and gave the perfect pin-up girl pose for the dozens of cameramen furiously snapping away. In case Danica in a fire suit wasn’t enough, she wore designer shades on top of her head, large square-cut diamonds in her ears and a practice-perfect smile across her face.

No one ever questioned her ability to sell herself, her sport or her sponsors.

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On a cloudy Friday morning at Daytona International Speedway, the start of the start of Patrick’s NASCAR experiment began. She whistled around the legendary 2.5-mile track at 179 miles per hour, good enough to start 12th in Saturday’s ARCA race – her first in a stock car.

ARCA is one of NASCAR’s minor-league feeder systems, so while the track is the same, the Lucas Oil 150 is a long way from trading paint with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart in next Sunday’s Daytona 500.

She won’t compete in the Great American Race anytime soon. She’ll spend this year and likely next trying to learn the particulars of driving a stock car in lower-tier circuits. This is her moonlighting job while she continues to compete in the open-wheel Indy Racing League. If she finds success driving stock cars, she’ll almost assuredly head full time to NASCAR’s major circuit, the Sprint Cup, in the next few years.

This is the humble beginning, though, and Patrick is first to admit it.

“I [wanted] to make sure I [kept] the car in one piece,” she said with a smile. “Now it’s time to think, ‘How the heck am I going to run this race?’ I’ve been listening to all the strategies today. It’s very different.”

Everything about Friday was very different. It’s possible the qualifying for this ARCA race attracted more media attention than any actual race in the circuit’s 50-plus-year history, and it’s all because of Patrick. While she’s considered a trailblazer, she’s not even close to the first open-wheel driver to make this move, nor is she the first (or only) woman. There are five other female drivers in Saturday’s race who will be shown on Speed TV at 4:30 pm ET.

But of those, only one has appeared in the past two Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. Only one has a racy Super Bowl advertising campaign built around her. And, of course, only one has led laps in the Indy 500.

Patrick is already a celebrity driver, one of the most famous in the world despite winning just one race. Taking a shot at NASCAR was a calculated gamble. It’s a far more popular race circuit, one that can offer more money and exposure.

There are risks, however. A number of IRL drivers with more experience driving stock cars have struggled with the transition. Trying to master the heavier cars while going against better competition could also humble her. A string of crashes or losses or disappointments won’t help the Danica brand. There are already plenty of critics waiting to pounce.

Since she began flirting with the move, everyone has wondered about her motivations. As of Friday, it no longer mattered. She’s behind the wheel now, in it to win it.

Perhaps most surprising: She’s offering up a smiling personality that she often hides in the IRL. Patrick carried a nothing-to-lose breeziness Friday, not even concerned as she fell in the qualifying standings from first to outside the top 10.

“I’ve enjoyed the whole process [of taking a shot at stock-car racing],” Patrick said. “I have to say: A lot of times, I get pretty nervous about the race. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy but I think it’s going to be fun.”

At the start of the start, that was enough for Danica Patrick. She knows how to attract attention. She knows how to win over fans. She knows it’s a good idea to wear diamond earrings under her helmet.

She also knows this isn’t going to be easy, but she also doesn’t seem to care.

The easy road for Danica was staying exclusively in the IRL, being a big fish in a small pond. Saturday, she’ll take the road around this famed American loop, nothing to lose except for a lot.

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