Danica Patrick bracing for Round 2

2/13/2011 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Danica Patrick sat alone in the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center. She was back at the track to shoot a television commercial, nearly two months after finishing 21st in the track's fall NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Daytona Speedweeks was still weeks away and, for once, she was totally alone.

Sort of.

Standing in the hallway were a half-dozen handlers, clipboards in hand and toes tapping, waiting to whisk her away to the next item on the day's super-tight schedule. Out on pit road, crews set up a million dollars worth of lights. In the room adjacent to where she sat, the director was going through script changes with his team as he also tried to head off growing complaints that it was too cold to be shooting outside.

"Oh, this is nothing," the 28-year-old said without a hint of sarcasm, waving her hand dismissively toward the hall. "It's actually pretty calm. It's sure a lot more calm than it was when I was here back in October. Everywhere I go feels calmer now. It's nice. Last year got a little nuts, didn't it?"

Welcome to Danica 2.0: The Second Go 'Round. Where there will no doubt still be plenty of hype, hordes and hope, but all presented at a much lower volume. A more realistic volume. And the person most anxious to turn down the noise is Patrick.

One year ago her stock car debut was enveloped in talk of winning ARCA races, cranking out top-10 finishes in the Nationwide Series and perhaps even sneaking into a Cup ride by season's end. That excitement created a crush of fans wherever she went -- NASCAR loyalists who had only seen her during Indianapolis 500 telecasts or in Super Bowl commercials. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. says he's never seen anything like it, not even at the height of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s popularity.

But as the 2010 season crossed the finish line without a win, or even a top-15 finish, that once-massive crowd had thinned out, both those seeking autographs and those seeking sound bites. Most wrote the year off as a giant letdown. Others screamed "I told you so!"

Patrick, who has become a master of tuning out such outside noise, prefers to look back on last season as one very long, much-needed attitude adjustment.

"I do think that maybe everyone's expectations were a little too high last season," she said. "I include myself in that. It was a huge compliment that so many fans seemed to think that I would just jump in a stock car and take off. I knew that wasn't going to happen. But I would be lying to you if I said that I expected the learning curve to be as steep as it was. I got pretty down about it at times. But over winter I've had a chance to stop, look back and measure how I did against that steeper curve. There's no question that I improved. Behind the wheel felt like night and day from February to November."

The numbers say that her assessment of the season is accurate. Patrick made 13 Nationwide Series starts last season. Over the first eight she crashed three times, cracked the top 25 only once and posted an average finish of 31st. Over the last five starts she posted zero DNFs, finished outside the top 25 only once and increased her average finish to 23rd. Her final start of the season was also her best, starting fifth at Homestead-Miami and leading four laps en route to a 19th-place finish. More important to her, she finished a NASCAR race on the lead lap for the first time.

"I think my goals changed almost immediately," she said, recalling her '10 trip to Daytona. "It went from, 'I have to win this race' to 'I just need to survive and stay out of the way of the people who actually do have a chance to win.' By the end of the year survival wasn't the goal anymore. I was finally comfortable enough to get aggressive in the car. Anyone who followed my career knows the more aggressive I can be the better I am."

Indy cars, where she is entering her seventh season, are custom-built for aggression. Pure speed and super glue-like downforce allows for attacking, reacting and correcting. Stock cars are about momentum, throwing around 3,400 pounds of steel and knowing how it's going to throw you around with it. That momentum is built over laps and miles. When it comes to driver development, it is built over weeks and months and years.

Maintaining that momentum is hard enough when one races every week. But Patrick's schedule, both in 2010 and this year, has her departing stock cars in mid-March for her "day job" with Andretti Autosport, then returning sporadically through the summer and returning to semi-full-time NASCAR status in the fall. She said flatly: "As much as I like stock cars, my dream is still to win the Indy 500. People can say what they want about my schedule, but Indy is Indy."

"The transition from open wheel cars is hard enough if you are attempting it full-on," said Juan Pablo Montoya, who won in Champ Car and Formula One before becoming a stock car racer. Even with his impeccable résumé he has managed only two wins in 170 stock car starts. Patrick has made 15. "It's her life and her career and she can do what she wants. But the way she is doing it makes it at least twice as difficult."

That path requires patience. And patience is a virtue that racers simply aren't born with. Neither are critics. During Thursday's Daytona Media Day, Patrick started preaching the same sermon of patience that she did one year ago during the craziest of Speedweeks. But this year, as she rolled out her primary goal for the year -- to score top-15 finishes -- her talk of equanimity didn't feel as though it was aimed at anyone other than herself.

It was not an act merely rehearsed and rolled out for the biggest media contingent of the year. Weeks earlier, sitting alone at Charlotte Motor Speedway, she gave nearly the same speech to a lone reporter.

"The biggest thing I've had to teach myself is that it's OK if I don't set the world on fire every weekend," she said. "My fans have had to learn that too. I appreciate their patience. Now I just need to teach myself how to be patient. I'm getting better. Not great, but better."

Then she looked up at the handlers who tapped their fingers to their watches and pointed to the door, where a golf cart waited to carry her out to the cameras waiting on pit road.

"Sorry, but I have to go," she said with a smile. "These people over here, they are not patient."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.