Ask Danica Patrick what she thinks heading into Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 — the longest race she’s ever attempted — and she offers the only answer she truly can.
“I don’t really know what to think yet, but I feel like I’ve got a good distance preview with Darlington being 500 (miles); what’s another hundred after that, right?” she said with a laugh Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Still, the driver accustomed to navigating her open-wheel car in the prestigious Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend is focused and intent on getting ready for one of NASCAR’s showcase events.
Not only is she logging laps getting ready for Sunday’s showdown, but she’s also getting ready to compete Saturday in the Nationwide Series. It’s a rare double-duty for the tenacious driver competing in her first full season of NASCAR.
Patrick deems herself both excited to be racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway and fortunate to have the chance to race in the series’ longest event.
She’s running from garage to garage, dashing from crew chief to crew chief, car to car, but she’s quick to point out she’s not alone in this mission.
“It’s nothing other drivers haven’t done before,” she said.
As she prepares for the outing, Patrick parrots the conventional wisdom drivers of the modern era embrace: You can’t get fit enough or hydrated enough for this race "the day of." That process needs to have already been under way.
Patrick is obviously fit and points out that she works to stay healthy with her diet and exercise. With her racing schedule — and her somewhat racy and revealing GoDaddy.com ad campaign — she has plenty of incentive to stay in top form.
“I eat healthy all the time,” she said. “It makes me feel better as well as makes it easier to do photo shoots and look the way I want to look. I work out a lot because I need to obviously stay fit and have endurance for the car.”
So how does she stay fit?
Patrick says she eats egg whites and oatmeal as well as salads and salmon.
Her pre-race meal?
“I try to mix it up at night — there was a point in time that I ate a heck of a lot of salmon and vegetables,” she said. “I still do that, too. I would say the track meal every night is salmon, brown rice, grilled peppers and grilled onions. Pretty much that is dinner the first night every time because you have to eat the fish first. Then it is chicken the next night and so on. I mean, I eat healthy all day long: yogurts, cottage cheese, etc. Anything healthy I eat.”
She also has a drink mix in her car, too, to help her make it through these longer races — contests that generally exceed the averages of what she ran in her seven years of IndyCar competition.
As with this weekend, her season has been filled with lessons. She’s running a 10-race schedule in the Cup ranks, her first foray into NASCAR’s elite ranks. She’s also running full time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports for the first time. She’s finished outside the top 30 in her two initial Cup outings, but she’s 10th in the Nationwide standings with a top-10 finish this season. In 35 career Nationwide starts, she has one top-five finish, four top-10 finishes and a pole position.
Her Nationwide team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., says she’s simply trying to cram a lot of learning into a short time span.
“I think she’s had a difficult season this year, and she obviously (wishes) she had finished better or run better, but I think she just needs to buckle down and try to learn everything she can,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “She’s really tried to get a four-year degree in a short amount of time. She’s trying to learn a lot in a short amount of time. She just needs to concentrate on what she can learn, what she can improve on. And she’s going to have a bigger challenge next year, and she needs to look forward to that and try to prepare herself as best she can for that.”
That theory applies to this weekend as well — an entirely new experience for Patrick. Although she raced at this track in 2010, she’s adjusting to a Memorial Day race in Charlotte.
She admits that she thinks about Indy right now. After all, that was the pinnacle race of her season for the past several years, and one where she found success. In seven races there, she finished in the top 10 all but once, and finished third once.
“Whenever I’m busy, that is sort of what I am focused on,” she said. “Last weekend when I had time to watch qualifying I was thinking about Indy, and I was thinking about how I would be doing if I was there. I can imagine every thought that is going through all those drivers’ heads. When someone comes off the track and says, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think we can go any faster, that was a pretty tough run as it was’ — I can imagine what that is like. … I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there. I just had a lot of memories of what was going on. I’m very pleased that I’m in NASCAR. I’m very happy; I’m having a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to a different challenge this weekend.”
So while she expects to face her share of challenges this weekend in Charlotte, Patrick seems thrilled to be in this race — and eager to learn exactly what this double-duty weekend, capped by a 600-mile race, will truly be like.
“For me it’s just a matter of staying focused, staying positive and staying hydrated,” she said.