Commentary

All Danica, all the time? You got it

Updated: June 23, 2010, 3:14 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Might as well detonate the ESPN Conversation right from the top.

Danica Patrick.

Danica Patrick.

Danica Patrick.

There now. The pot should be boiling instantaneously among you readers, one way or the other.

Now, you didn't think I was going to try to get your attention with the name of Dale Earnhardt Jr., did you? Listen: He's just the car owner in this deal.

She's baaaaaaaaaack.

More than ever, more often.

Danica Patrick
AP Photo/Cody DutyDanica Patrick draws interest wherever she goes, with this fan in Texas carrying a cardboard cutout of her at the track.

The partnership of NASCAR's most polarizing female driver and most polarizing male driver (and his business-savvy sister, Kelley Earnhardt) will put Danica back on track not only this Saturday at Loudon, N.H., but in nine more Nationwide races this season for JR Motorsports.

So get ready to have at it, Danica fans and Danica detractors. You just thought you saw a lot of media attention during the late winter and early spring.

For one thing, your running joke during our live race chats is over. You know: "What place is Danica in? Oh, that's right, she's not in the race."

She will be. And yes, you'll have to put up with all those mentions in print and on television as to where she is at any given moment in a race.

Fact is, Danica detractors, media coverage is a natural democracy -- majority rules. There are a lot more people who want to keep up with Danica than there are people who don't.

And we're talking global here, not just national. Samplings from ESPN audiences around the world showed people in dozens of countries were watching the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona solely to see how Danica did.

The trend continues. Just think of Danicamania as a sort of World Cup of auto racing. You can't get away from it.

As furious as it might make all you fans of the likes of Brad Coleman, Brian Ickler, Eric McClure or Scott Lagasse Jr., Danica's name resonates more than all the other learning-stage Nationwide drivers put together.

So you're going to see, hear and read a lot more about her.

Just kick back. Relax. Don't fight it. No use.

And you can always enjoy a little schadenfreude over her situation -- that's a hip German word for taking dark pleasure in the troubles of others. There seems to be a lot of schadenfreude going around in sports nowadays, especially among NASCAR fans who ridicule drivers they don't like. I think in Internet-speak they are called "trolls."

So anyway, all you anti-Danica trolls should reap some schadenfreude from her current anxiety. Returning after a four-month layoff from NASCAR, she'll have to deal for the first time with New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the little 1-mile, paper-clip-shaped track that gives even some NASCAR veterans fits.

"I'm nervous," she admitted to me Tuesday during a teleconference, "because it's new [to me] and there's so much to learn …"

And here you could tell her head was spinning a bit.

"… about the way a race goes, how the race kind of plays out normally, and the yellow flags and the pit stops and how the car changes over a fuel run and how the tires change.

"There's just so much that I'm unfamiliar with.

"That makes me nervous, because I care and I want to do well."

That's the cue for all of you on Danica's side to come in and relate to her as very human, very grateful for her following, keen on living up to expectations.

"I know that people are watching and I want to put on a good show for the fans. I want to give them a reason to cheer for me."

She doesn't take those cheers for granted -- certainly not since she was booed by fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during qualifying for the Indy 500, for criticizing her team after a disappointing run in a fitful car.

Expectations for her in NASCAR soared perhaps too high in her stock-car debut, a dazzling and aggressive sixth-place finish in the swirling drafts of the ARCA race at Daytona. But then she got wrecked out of her inaugural Nationwide race, and ran tentatively in two more, at Fontana and Las Vegas.

So Danica wants to keep her expectations real for Saturday.

"Qualifying in the top 20 and maybe finishing in the top 15, that would be great," she said. "And build myself up from there, and then hopefully one day they'll be the same expectations that I have in IndyCar."

The open-wheel expectations are getting higher. After the controversy over her ill-handling car, she salvaged a solid sixth-place finish in the Indy 500. Then the following week, at Texas, she drove perhaps her best IndyCar race yet -- better even than her lone win, because she was more aggressive in finishing second at Texas than she'd been in her Motegi win in 2008.

Her four-month focus on IndyCar, and absence from NASCAR, hasn't helped or hurt either one, either way, she reckons.

"They're just so different that you don't get confused," she said.

As for the ambience of NASCAR -- the much larger crowds of spectators and media -- she has kind of missed all the benevolent hoopla.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to the team, to the fans, to the paddock and everybody in it.

"Everybody was so nice when I first came into the series at the beginning of the year. So I'm just really looking forward to seeing everybody again."

It has been widely assumed that when and if Danica does graduate from Nationwide to Cup level, it would be with Hendrick Motorsports -- of which JR Motorsports is a satellite.

But while she was away, team owner Rick Hendrick signed Kasey Kahne to a multiyear contract that begins in 2011. With Mark Martin still uninterested in retiring, that creates a sort of musical seats situation at Hendrick, where somebody might get left out.

So I asked if this causes her concern about her long-range future in NASCAR.

"He's a fantastic driver," she said of Kahne. "And Hendrick is obviously the top team.

"As for my situation, I don't really know … We first have to go through this process [of methodical learning] and run Nationwide and see how it goes, and see what kind of things are in the future for me.

"But, I mean, gosh, if you had the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick in NASCAR, then that's a fantastic opportunity that anyone should take. And maybe I'll be lucky enough one day.

"But I think we have a lot to go through to get to that point."

And so do you, Danica fans and Danica detractors -- and trolls.

You get to nyaah-nyaah back and forth with every NASCAR race she runs. There will be 10 more of those this year alone.

So, as NASCAR told the Cup drivers at the beginning of this season …

Have at it, boys (and girls).

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.