Danica Patrick slowly finding her niche
CONCORD, N.C. -- No sooner had Danica Patrick arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway the other day than she started telling her entourage stories of her vast experience here -- like taking out Sam Hornish Jr. one time.
Not in stock cars, but on "the little go-kart track inside of 3 and 4" she said of when they were kids and intense competitors, vying for national championships.
"He tried to take me out on the lap before, so I drove [and here her voice exuded the same relish as always when she tells this story] over the top of him in the last corner."
Also the other day, "I was talking with [car owner] Kelley Earnhardt's little daughter, and she's racing, and I'm like, 'Hey, if you can't get by somebody, just hit 'em into the corner and get 'em out of the way.'"
The point is, Patrick has the instincts, the temperament and the sense of frontier justice for NASCAR -- cling as she might to the notion that she was cut out for open-wheel cars.
No sooner had she told me that Hornish story for the first time -- and he had confirmed it -- upon her arrival at Indy in 2005 than I thought: This is more a NASCAR driver than an IndyCar driver.
It is taking her awhile to show that, and to realize that herself. But she's getting there.
She plans to run up to 14 Nationwide Series races next year, although not all the details of all the races have been worked out. On Friday, she did announce her first four races of 2011: Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol.
Yes, Bristol. Danica at Bristol for the first time. If she hasn't faced up fully to her NASCAR instincts by then, Bristol ought to do it.
At the first three tracks, she'll be making repeat visits (she'll run her first Phoenix stock car race in November). Returning to tracks is something she learned was key when she ran far better at Fontana last week than she had the first time. This time, she ran as high as 12th before being taken out in a late run-in with James Buescher.
Contractually, she's bound to another full season of IndyCar, so she can't take the advice of Kurt Busch and others to jump into NASCAR full time if she wants to make real progress.
"I'm not able to do it next year," she said, "even if I wanted to."
If she wanted to? Oh, c'mon, Danica. It's getting tougher and tougher for her to contain her enthusiasm for this fender-banging stuff.
Considering her tangle with Buescher -- where she appeared to jam him up into the wall as they exited a corner and he clipped her quarterpanel and turned her head-on into the wall -- and her clearly happy reminiscence about taking out Hornish here in go-karts years ago
I just had to ask her whether she is finally realizing that NASCAR is more her cup of tea than IndyCar. Before long in her answer, the instincts were showing despite her best attempts at political correctness.
"You know, I mean, I can't deny my IndyCar roots and my open-wheel roots and how I've come up through the ranks," she began.
What she didn't say was that those ranks included the brutal British schooling formulas, where drivers vying to climb to Formula One slam wheels, block, take each other out
But, with proper respect paid to the technology and precision of Indy cars, she began her admissions.
"When I came back over here, I was talking about the word descriptions: 'understeer' and 'oversteer' versus 'tight' and 'loose' and 'push' and all those other words.
"And I said, 'You know what? All those words are the same that I used in go-karts.
"And you talk about the bumping." That was when she mentioned her advice to Kelley Earnhardt's daughter -- Dale Earnhardt's granddaughter -- Karsyn Elledge, 10.
I think, in the past, I just used to yell about it. But what matters is what happens out on the track. So I've found the best thing to do is give people a taste of their own medicine out there.” -- Danica Patrick
"That's what I used to do when I raced go-karts. If I didn't get by 'em in two corners, I just hit 'em going into the [next] corner and pushed 'em wide and went by 'em."
"I don't want you to think I was a really rough driver, I just got through. That's gonna come out totally wrong, I'm sure."
Not in NASCAR territory, it didn't.
If she hasn't shown a lot of tendency to hit and slam in open-wheel cars, it's because they're not as forgiving.
"There's a lot of drivers in IndyCar that push you around and do things that you can't believe," she said. "You're like, 'Are you trying to flip the car?' If I didn't lift, that's what would happen.
"I don't want to put myself in that position in those cars a lot of times, so I might come across as a little bit more of a pushover over there."
And now her voice grew more gleeful with every phrase she spoke: "But in this series, you've got fenders all the way around, and if someone makes you mad at them, for sure, you can just take them out.
"And you can make your own way. You don't have to be taken advantage of because someone is just more crazy than you."
She paused again, a bit astonished at what she'd said.
"That's not going well," she reckoned of her wording.
Oh, yes it was. The real Danica, the NASCAR Danica, was emerging.
In IndyCar, she had developed a reputation for nose-to-nose confrontations with other drivers, out of the cars, after incidents. But NASCAR has taught her she doesn't have to wait that long -- or waste her time just complaining.
"I think, in the past, I just used to yell about it," she said. "But what matters is what happens out on the track. So I've found the best thing to do is give people a taste of their own medicine out there. And I've found that you can also gain respect in those situations, too
"I think just maturitywise as a driver, it's helped me, whether I continue to do IndyCar or whether I do this "
Oh, c'mon, Danica. One more year of learning, and then how can she possibly resist?
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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