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Dabbling in NASCAR just makes Danica Patrick's star burn brighter

Peyton Nixon, 4, gets a high-five from IndyCar driver Danica Patrick during an autograph session in the fan zone for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Peyton, who is from Valrico, came to the event with his mother, Kelly.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Peyton Nixon, 4, gets a high-five from IndyCar driver Danica Patrick during an autograph session in the fan zone for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Peyton, who is from Valrico, came to the event with his mother, Kelly.

ST. PETERSBURG — Danica Patrick has just started her second season in NASCAR's Nationwide series and finished no higher than 19th in 13 races last year, but her moonlighting with stock cars has helped extend her reach to another large group of fans.

"Perhaps. Just like there's IndyCar dedicated fans, there are dedicated NASCAR fans, and then there's a whole lot of just race fans," she said Friday before a practice session for Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "I guess I'm doing a little bit of both to kind of serve whatever fans' taste buds, which series they like. You can't tell if they're one fan or another necessarily. There's a whole lot of NASCAR fans … a couple million people watch every weekend. I suppose there's more awareness now."

In terms of popularity, Patrick has a following that far more established, successful drivers have trouble keeping up with — consider Twitter.com, where Patrick's official account has 325,420 followers, a strong number for a driver.

By comparison, IndyCar's Helio Castroneves has one-tenth as many followers (31,894), and even maybe the most successful NASCAR driver, Jimmie Johnson, has 16,136 followers on his official account. Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR's most popular drivers on Twitter, has 46,636.

If Patrick can find consistent success in NASCAR, that could only add to her following. Three weeks ago, she had her best finish, taking fourth in Las Vegas.

Another open-wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, didn't fare well when he competed on NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit in 2008 and said the highest stock car circuit is a different challenge entirely.

"She seems to be getting better," said Franchitti, who watched her last Nationwide race on TV. "I think Nationwide is one thing and for me, it wasn't difficult to be top 10 in Nationwide. … Try doing that in Cup, that's a whole different level. That's when it gets really difficult."

Really, she's 29: Patrick celebrated a birthday Friday and said she misses the days of being the youngest driver in a field, though she still has plenty of racing ahead of her.

"I might feel a little worse when I'm 30," she said. "I'm used to being young. I remember the days when I was the youngest driver. That's not the case anymore."

POWER'S PRACTICE: Defending race champion Will Power clipped the Turn 8 wall in the second of two IndyCar practices but still had the top lap of the day at 102.247 mph (1 minute, 3.3759 seconds).

"It was a bit of a mixed-up day," the Penske Racing driver said. "I had to put a new front tire on, and I didn't get that many laps. This is a really difficult car to drive. It is difficult to get the balance."

Franchitti, two-time defending series champion, was second for Chip Ganassi Racing at 102.018 mph, 0.14 seconds behind Power.

"I can never get away from this guy," Power said of Franchitti, who overtook him in the season finale to win the title last year.

LOCAL EFFORT: Patrick Long of Belleair earned the pole for today's SCCA World Challenge race, the first of two this weekend. Long ran a top lap of 86.318 mph (1:15.071) in a Porsche 911 GT3.

OTHER SERIES: Anders Krohn was fastest in Indy Lights practice at 93.863 mph (1:09.0371). Spencer Pigot earned the pole for today's USF2000 race, the first of two this weekend, at 87.621 mph (1:13.955).

Dabbling in NASCAR just makes Danica Patrick's star burn brighter 03/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 1:11am]
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