DAYTONA BEACH — The reporters began camping out at the table with the "Danica Patrick" paper nameplate long before her scheduled interview time. By the time Patrick arrived for her nearly 20-minute session at Thursday's NASCAR Media Day, the area was packed.
The 29-year-old is about to begin her first full season in stock car racing after splitting time the past two years racing in NASCAR's Nationwide series and IndyCar. As she heads into Speedweeks, and her first Daytona 500, Patrick believes she's well-prepared for what's to come, including the massive media attention.
"I feel good," she said. "Let's not forget, I've been exposed to the Indy 500, which is one of the biggest races in the world, if not the biggest race in the world, and there's lots of media around that too and lots of hype for kind of like this — an extended period of time. But you know, it's definitely good."
Patrick might have been a bigger draw than several more proven drivers, but the attention on her is ultimately good for NASCAR, veteran driver Mark Martin said.
"Any time there's a lot of noise made there's going to be a lot of supporters and a good bit of negative as well," Martin said. "It's a positive for our sport. … We saw what she has the potential to do, so I think it's just a matter of time before she shows more potential. She made tremendous progress last year. It was amazing."
Patrick will be part of the Stewart-Haas racing team, and her boss and teammate said she's competitive both on and off the track. Stewart and Patrick were leaving the track on their way to dinner recently when she decided to race him to the edge of the parking lot.
"All right, we've got a long season," Stewart told her. "I'll let you win the first one."
Patrick will run 10 Sprint Cup races and the full Nationwide season — the most in her career. Once, that might have been a problem, but she says not now.
"Back a few years ago I definitely was concerned with the workload that NASCAR schedules bring, but the last two years I went from doing a 16- to 18-race season to about 30," she said. "And now it's going to be about 34 or 35 weekends, so it's really only an extra month worth of weekends. So it's much more tolerable than jumping from IndyCar to NASCAR in one jump."
Patrick will race in her first Daytona 500 nine days from now thanks to a guaranteed spot in the field because of NASCAR rules that allow championship point swapping with other teams.
Still, if Thursday was any indication, there seems to be plenty of support for her. Carl Edwards said because the Daytona track is "its own specific style of racing and not like the other tracks," Patrick might have a better chance at Daytona than at some of the other tracks. But the overall switch won't be easy, he said.
"This level is cutthroat, very, very, very tough," Edwards said.
Fourth-year driver Joey Logano has an idea of what Patrick faces. In 2008 he became the youngest driver to make his Cup debut at age 18 and was anointed by Martin as the sport's next superstar. He also got a top-tier ride in his first full year in the series, inheriting Stewart's No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I think the main thing is you have to be confident in yourself," Logano said when asked what advice he'd give Patrick. "Once you lose that, it's game over. I don't see her doing that. She looks like she's got plenty of confidence. I don't see her in anything like that. I think she'll be fine. She'll work her way through it. The thing is everyone needs to be patient. It's not going to happen overnight."
That hasn't shaken Patrick's confidence at all. Asked Thursday if she believes she can win the Daytona 500, she didn't hesitate to say yes. With some help.
"Luck," she said. "I have a fast car, so I think that's taken care of, but I think it's going to take some good breaks and a patient race, staying out of trouble. … But I think luck is going to play a big factor."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]