Danica's been prepping for a lifetime
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The man on the other end of the phone has about as much interest in NASCAR as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has in rhythmic gymnastics.
The man on the other end of the phone once took his 10-year-old son to the old Rebel 400 at Darlington Raceway and stood in the shade above the chicken bone section, as far as he could get from the roar of the engines and the tire-rubber particles that fly into the stands.
He read a paperback novel, no less.
So imagine the surprise when the man, my 77-year-old father, started a Thursday night conversation with, "So do you think the lady can win?"
The lady, if you haven't been paying attention to the circus at Daytona International Speedway, is IndyCar Series racing star Danica Patrick. She will make her NASCAR debut in Saturday's Nationwide Series race (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2) for JR Motorsports.
How Danica Got Here
She has brought so many new viewers to the sport that it has become necessary to explain common phrases such as green-white-checkered finishes so motorsports neophytes can understand.
That my father might be watching helped make me understand that.
It also made me think. These people probably wonder how Patrick, 27, arrived at this moment, how she prepared for arguably the biggest debut the sport has seen since Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- now her boss -- ran his first Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999.
The simple answer is she's been preparing for this since the age of 10, when she began racing go-karts at Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wis.
"Everything I've done has been some preparation for the position that I'm in now," Patrick said after posting the fifth-fastest speed in Thursday's practice. "You just have to kind of build up. It's just like speed."
The building blocks took Patrick through several small open-wheel series until 2005, when she made it to the Indy Racing League with Rahal Letterman Racing, where she remained for two seasons before signing with Andretti Autosport.
At some point the thought of racing in NASCAR entered the back of her mind. She explored it in 2007 before re-upping with Andretti. She revisited it this past fall, agreeing to a partial Nationwide schedule with JR Motorsports as she negotiated a two-year deal with Andretti.
That brought Patrick to Saturday's ARCA debut, in which she finished sixth after spinning out and rallying from last. That brought her to the Nationwide race, which Jeff Gordon predicts will be the most-watched ever.
"This definitely is the biggest room of media I've been in," said Patrick, who last year finished third in the Indianapolis 500.
And Saturday she will have one of her biggest audiences.
"I feel like I've really built up a lot of, you know, patience and tolerance and confidence along the way in IndyCar to be ready for everything, including this," Patrick said.
Specifically how did she get ready for this race? The simple answer is it began in December when she came to Florida for two days of testing a Nationwide car at Disney World Speedway and then three days of ARCA testing at Daytona.
In between she's watched video. Lots of video. More video than Mike Davis, the public relations director for JR Motorsports and Earnhardt's former Cup PR director, has seen any driver study.
"At the ARCA test she'd be here in the morning before anybody, watch video, get in the car and test her ass off all morning," Davis said. "Then she'd watch more video, get back in the car and test her ass off all afternoon.
"No knock on Junior, but he may go talk to somebody down here or there. She was so focused. And then she went to the hotel and ran on the treadmill."
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. tried to get Patrick into iRacing, the computer-simulated racing game that is as close to being on the track as anything he's seen. That hasn't happened -- so far.
"I'm not normally a video game person, but I'll give it a whirl," Patrick said. "[Eury] and Dale Jr. were talking about it. They just get so excited. They said Tony Jr. will take me out [of the video race], so those are things I'll be ready for."
Until then Patrick will continue to watch tons of video, much of it in-car footage to give her a bird's-eye view of what she'll see from behind the wheel. She watched the first part of last year's Nationwide race before getting into the car Thursday.
"I'm in the garage telling the guys, 'Everyone went loose last year, everyone went loose. Please, I'm already loose,'" she said. "So, you know, I'm taking all of that into consideration and just looking at how the pack starts, how it spreads out, where the cars end up, maybe what lines end up being better than others."
Patrick has leaned a lot on Earnhardt, one of the best restrictor-plate drivers in the circuit, and Daytona is a restrictor-plate race. NASCAR mandates restrictor plates -- a flat piece of metal between the carburetor and intake manifold on engines that restricts fuel intake and airflow -- to slow cars down at Daytona and Talladega. Otherwise, speeds would reach heights considered dangerous, well north of 200 mph.
She can't see the air yet, a situation veterans describe as being able to "see" the air and turbulence currents off the cars in front of them, but that takes time.
"[She's done] a lot of talking to Dale Jr., a lot of talking to myself," Eury said.
Eury also has taken Patrick to the spotter's stand during Cup practice to give her a feel for how they help get drivers around the track.
But nothing has been as helpful as the practical experience from the ARCA race and practice.
"People can tell you these things will happen, but until she ran the ARCA race, she couldn't put it all together," Eury said.
The way Patrick put things together after the Lap 54 spinout Saturday sent her flying through the infield grass impressed the most. It earned her respect from some of the sport's top talents, such as Gordon and Carl Edwards.
And while Saturday's Nationwide race will be a different animal, most agree Patrick has done all she can to get ready.
Oh, and that strength factor that many said would prevent her from succeeding in NASCAR? Not a problem so far.
"She takes her health and eating habits like nobody I've been around," said Eury, who has introduced the 105-pound driver to Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Chick-fil-A to test her. "People talk about Jimmie Johnson over there [in Cup]. He eats really well, but she even has him beat."
Eury initially was worried about the strength factor, how Patrick would endure a 100-lap race. Not anymore.
"She's probably the only driver I've been around when you go to an eight-hour test she's only gotten out [of the car] twice," he said.
T.J. Patrick says his daughter is "as strong as an ox."
"She's freak strong," he added.
Davis dared anybody to challenge her in arm wrestling.
"Use both hands," he said. "I'm telling you, she is strong."
A stickler for paying attention to detail, Patrick has left no stone unturned in preparation for this moment. She's even made friends on the track with many of the top drivers, something that took a while in IndyCar.
"I know it's important to have friends," Patrick said, understanding that in NASCAR enemies have bumpers for retaliation, whereas they don't in her full-time job in IndyCar. "I know it's important to have people who will run with you. If I've got a good run, you want to be the kind of person that people will jump up high or drop down low with you and create a line, get the momentum going."
Line. Low. Loose. Tight.
Patrick's even getting the language down, although there recently was a funny moment when she misunderstood "yaw" (when the rear housing is turned to give the car an almost sideways driving appearance down the straightaway) for the Southern term "y'all."
"She's picking up on it pretty good," Eury said with a laugh. "She's like a sponge, trying to soak up as much as she can for this race."
Pretty soon she may know enough to educate the newcomers she's drawing to the sport, even the man on the other end of the phone.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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