Even as her mangled race car belched steam from its radiator in the background, Danica Patrick remained confident she would have good days in NASCAR.
This wasn’t one of them. Making her NASCAR debut, Patrick ran outside the top 20 for most of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway before getting caught up in a 12-car wreck just past the race’s halfway point.
Patrick was hoping to learn as much as she could about a new style of racing. She ended up going to the school of hard knocks.
"It’s important to have realistic expectations," Patrick said. "There’s 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."
Tony Stewart went on to win the race for the fifth time in six years.
And it was an expensive day for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went airborne in a frightening wreck later in the race. He and Patrick both escaped without significant injuries.
Earnhardt is a co-owner of the JR Motorsports team, which now must find the money to repair Patrick’s car and completely replace the one Earnhardt wrecked — a bill that could total $200,000.
But budget concerns aside, Earnhardt praised Patrick’s ability. According to Earnhardt, the fact that she wasn’t running near the front Saturday doesn’t mean she can’t be competitive in NASCAR right away.
"This is such a different kind of racing than she’ll do the rest of the season," Earnhardt said. "I think that everybody should just take Daytona for what it is."
Stewart said the experience Patrick gained was more important than the result. "She got a lot of laps in today, and that’s what needed to happen," Stewart said. "It would have been a disaster if she had been taken out on the second lap and didn’t get a chance to learn anything."
Patrick finished sixth in last week’s ARCA event at Daytona, and felt comfortable enough to move her NASCAR debut up a week to the Nationwide opener. The IndyCar star went into Saturday’s start saying her main goals were finishing the race, staying out of trouble and learning as much as she can.
One out of three wasn’t what she had in mind.
After slipping outside the top 20 in the first few laps of the race, Patrick made a nice move to narrowly avoid a big wreck early on. Trevor Bayne was turned into the wall, touching off a seven-car crash. The accident happened right in front of Patrick, who swerved to the low side of the track to miss it.
Patrick fell to the back of the pack after that, running a long stretch of the race outside the top 30.
Her team made suspension adjustments during a pit stop in an attempt to improve the car’s handling. Patrick then moved up to the middle of the pack before several cars wrecked in front of her. She tried to duck low to avoid the spinning cars but was unable to dodge everything, slamming into the outside wall.
Patrick regained control and drove to the pits. Her crew pushed the car back to the garage with heavy damage to the front.
"I wish I would have run up there at the beginning and felt more comfortable, but I just didn’t," Patrick said. "And that just proves how hard it is out here, and how much there is to learn and how good all these drivers really are." She’s scheduled to run the next two Nationwide races, at California and Las Vegas.
"We’ll go to these other tracks where she’ll literally be driving the car, it’ll be handling good or bad," Earnhardt said. "Then people can start forming their opinions on what kind of learning curve she has. But I feel pretty confident. She’s been in a tough situation with the media and the pressure and the attention, I couldn’t have done it."
And if Earnhardt – NASCAR’s most popular and rock star-like driver – is balking at the attention Patrick received this week, it clearly was a big deal.
Patrick took center stage before the race, receiving warm applause during prerace driver introductions and attracting a swarm of fans with cell phone cameras around her car on pit road.
Michael Waltrip cut through the crowd to speak briefly with Patrick just before the race started, then posted a photo of the horde on his Twitter account.
"I could not believe all the attention," Earnhardt said. "It’s just amazing. But it’s great for the sport. It’s good for our company. But I’m really pleased. I think she’s attacking this opportunity."