Danica Patrick still looking for her NASCAR comfort zone in Fontana – LA Times

By Jim Peltz
Los Angeles Times

Danica Patrick naturally was at ease in front of the phalanx of cameras tracking her first day driving a NASCAR stock car at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Friday.

Not so in the seat of her No. 7 Chevrolet.

Patrick, the IndyCar series star making a highly publicized attempt at NASCAR racing, complained of still being uncomfortable in the car after two practice rounds for the Stater Bros. 300 on Saturday, her second race in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series.

“I’m still not totally happy, that’s for sure, I’m just not feeling really comfortable on entry into the corner,” she said of driving around the two-mile oval track 50 miles east of Los Angeles. “It’s much different in these cars.”

Patrick, 27, made her NASCAR debut a week ago at the high-banked Daytona International Speedway, where the cars run virtually flat out in freight-train-like packs.

Here it’s much different maneuvering around the flatter Auto Club Speedway — such as knowing when to lift and then step back on the gas pedal while going through the corners — and it’s a skill Patrick is still learning.

She was 37th fastest out of 43 cars in her first practice with a top speed of 169.591 mph, then she improved to 27th in the second practice with a top lap of 171.310 mph in her car prepared by JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We made improvements but I’m still not there yet,” Patrick said. “I’m sure we’ll bring some more solid changes into either qualifying or — if that’s a rainout — the race.”

Indeed, there’s a forecast of some rain Saturday that could affect the track’s schedule. Qualifying for the Nationwide race is scheduled to start at 9:35 a.m., followed by two Cup practices and finally the Stater Bros. 300 race at 2:30 p.m.

Auto Club Speedway has lights for night racing as one option in the event of a rain delay.

Track officials said they had seen a “slight increase’ in ticket sales for Patrick’s Nationwide race compared with last year. The 2009 race drew an estimated 15,000, according to NASCAR.

“There’s definitely a difference in running behind people here as opposed to Daytona,” she said. “You can really run up behind them pretty solidly at Daytona, but here you definitely get the air taken away from you.

“On the other hand, there’s plenty of room out there, there’s plenty of lanes and plenty of places to go.”

Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said it’s all part of the learning process for Patrick. “There is a lot of focus on her, and pressure,” Stewart said. “This week is another learning experience.”

And Earnhardt said Patrick and his team have realistic expectations.

“We are real patient,” and Patrick “has a lot of races to learn and understand,” he said. She plans to drive in a dozen Nationwide races this year in and around her IndyCar schedule.

Patrick agreed that “I just need laps. I need to get familiar with how the car changes from the beginning to the end of a run. The tough thing for me is, I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel, so until the car is right I can’t have an expectation level. It just takes time.”