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Slow start, quick ending doesn't mean Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut a failure

DAYTONA BEACH — First day on a new job, and you're bound to have questions. Everyone does.

You might ask about time cards. Or computer systems. Or driving at insane speeds without crashing into anyone.

So Danica Patrick, any surprises after that first day at work?

You know, other than stalling the car after a pit stop. Or dropping far behind the leaders. Or bouncing into a wall after getting caught up in an unavoidable accident in front of you.

"It's important to have realistic expectations," Patrick said Saturday, after her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide series was cut short on the 69th lap following a 12-car accident.

"There are going to be spikes in performance, I don't doubt that. But there's also going to be tough days. And today, I would say, was more of a tough day."

Tough, but not really shocking. The truth is, Patrick is practically set up for disappointment in her rookie season in NASCAR. It's not that she isn't talented. And it's not that she isn't a devoted student. But her fame far exceeds her experience in a stock car.

And that means too many people will be too eager to write her off as a gimmick. Just another pretty face brought into the Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing stable to win sponsorships instead of races.

While there may be some truth to the accusation, it is still unfair to dismiss Patrick too quickly. These are different cars, on different tracks, with a different racing style than anything she has done.

"Just getting the experience in the car, learning what changes to make, how it makes the car react, that's what this week was about," said Saturday's Drive4COPD 300 winner, Tony Stewart. "It wasn't about where is she going to finish, where is she going to end up. This week was a learning week, plain and simple. That's what she was here for: to learn."

First lesson:

There's still a lot to learn.

Consider the moment early in Saturday's race when an accident brought out a caution flag. Patrick did a nifty job of avoiding the spinning cars and debris in front of her, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. complimented her poise on the radio.

But later, like a new employee unsure of what to do next, Patrick had to ask Eury whether the cars would be single file for the restart or side-by-side.

Consider it on-the-job training. At 150 mph.

The best thing Patrick has going for her is that she understands all of this. She's savvy enough to have marketed herself as a celebrity, but competitive enough to want success at least as much as fame.

And she seems willing to put in the time to do this right. She has been fanatical about watching video to soak up as much knowledge of stock car racing as possible. And she was smart enough to ease her way into NASCAR through the Nationwide series. She probably would have been fine skipping Saturday's race if her sponsors hadn't gotten overly excited about her sixth-place finish in an ARCA race last week.

Even in Saturday's race, Patrick avoided the temptation of taking chances to prove herself. With Eury encouraging her to push the envelope a little more during the first 40 laps, Patrick kept her distance from the pack because the car didn't feel right.

After a suspension adjustment during a pit stop, she said the handling was much better and she moved from 31st to 21st.

"When they tell you to keep pushing it, trust me, nobody wants to push it more than the driver," Patrick said. "I mean, I'm the one who is being looked at out there. So I really just take it to the limit of where I feel comfortable and what the car is giving me. And in the first stint, I didn't feel good, and I didn't feel like the car was going to give me what I wanted if I pushed it any harder.

"In that second run there, I felt much better. The car was much more under control, and I think we would have finished strong if we had finished, which was my goal, but as you can see it is easier said than done."

Not that the crushed car was her fault. Patrick had avoided one accident by slowing down and holding her line at the top of the track. When it happened a second time, she tried the same strategy, but upon driving through a cloud of smoke, she found a wrecked car directly in front of her. With her debut over, Patrick sounded frustrated on the radio.

"I was just starting to get it too, man," she said, while driving her broken car back to the pits.

There will be those who say Patrick, 27, got what she deserved. That she has not paid enough dues to have gotten so much attention on NASCAR's biggest weekend. And, I suppose, if she struggles down the line, then Patrick would be fair game.

You could call her a poser. A marketing phenomenon. A failure.

But it's far too soon for that kind of talk.

Right now, Danica Patrick is still learning about NASCAR.

And we're still learning about her.

Slow start, quick ending doesn't mean Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut a failure 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 9:35pm]

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