(Eds: Updates with details and comment. With AP Photos.)By PETE IACOBELLIAP Sports Writer
Danica Patrick is ready to earn her stripes – probably plenty of them – this weekend at the Southern 500.
Patrick is back in the Sprint Cup series for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 and she picked one of the circuit’s most treacherous tracks for her return in Darlington Raceway.
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Sprint Cup veterans leave the quirky, egg-shaped oval shaking their heads, let alone rookies unaccustomed to the odd corners, narrow straightaways and walls that attract cars like magnets. Even Patrick’s boss, Tony Stewart, hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race at Darlington.
”Why not start right away with the most difficult tracks?” Patrick said. ”If you want to have the most complete season you can, you might as well learn at the hardest race tracks.”
Patrick is sure to have her hands full at Darlington and will no doubt quickly earn her ”Darlington stripe” – the worn mark along car’s right side from continually rubbing against the outside walls – once practice starts Friday for Saturday night’s race.
Patrick plans to lean heavily on Stewart for tips at Darlington, even though Stewart’s lone trip to victory lane here came in the Nationwide Series event in 2008. She has been told, for example, that because the track is so narrow, it is better to let someone pass heading into a corner.
”It’s a confusing sort of racing,” Patrick said.
And one that’s confounded the greatest in NASCAR. Richard Petty had only three of his record 200 NASCAR victories at Darlington. Rusty Wallace won 55 NASCAR races, but never at Darlington. Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson swept both races here in 2004, yet hasn’t won at Darlington since.
”It’s going to be tough” for Patrick, said 2010 Southern 500 champion Denny Hamlin. ”No doubt about it.”
Hamlin remembers running dozens of test laps at Darlington Raceway before his first Nationwide Series race here in 2004. ”I literally wore every piece of sheet metal off the right side before I was done testing,” he said. ”It’s such a challenging track. It’s unlike any track she’s been on even in Indy cars.”
Patrick’s run at Darlington is part of her 10-race Sprint Cup schedule, which will continue two weeks from now at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. She goes three more months before returning to the Sprint Cup at Bristol. Patrick gets a dose of most tracks on the circuit with her Nationwide Series team, driving for JR Motorsports.
Stewart acknowledged he threw Patrick to the ”wolves” with some of the tracks she’s going to face. But the seat time will serve her well in years to come.
”I’m not worried about the finishes at the end of the day,” Stewart said. ”It’s just finishing the race, getting the laps and getting that experience in the car.”
Patrick, one of racing’s most popular figures, is amazed at how her fan base has expanded since leaving her fulltime open-wheel racing ride for NASCAR. She was on a plane last month when she noticed a young boy walk by in camouflage shirt of Stewart.
A short time later, an attendant asked if the boy could meet her.
”His mom had my sweatshirt on,” Patrick said. ”I think it’s the first time I’ve seen my merchandise on someone’s body. I’m noticing.”
Patrick’s had her share of bumps in the NASCAR road. Her Sprint Cup debut in February was ruined quickly with a second-lap crash and she finished 38th at Daytona.
There was some worry that her No. 10 car – driven by David Reutimann for Tommy Baldwin Racing in a partnership with Stewart-Haas when Patrick’s not running – wouldn’t make the Southern 500 field on points and she’d need a fast qualifying time.
But Rueitmann finished 22nd at Talladega last week and the No. 10 moved up to 33rd in owners points, locking it into Saturday night’s race.
Then there was Patrick’s bump of Sam Hornish Jr. on the cool-down lap of last week’s Nationwide event. Patrick was upset Hornish forced her car up the track. The two talked and have cleared up their differences, although NASCAR officials will likely talk with Patrick this week about her actions.
Patrick’s up to 11th in Nationwide points and thinks her time there has seasoned her for her next Sprint Cup try. She will be just the third woman to compete in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington, joining Shawna Robinson, who finished 42nd in 2002, and Janet Guthrie, who was 16th in 1977. Patrick hopes she can bring everything she’s learned so far in NASCAR to last until the end Saturday night.
”Most days, you feel like you’ve picked up some things” to improve, Patrick said. ”Sometimes, you think, `Man, that was just a bummer of a day.’ I need to get that experience so there are fewer of those bummer days.”