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Danica may still make NASCAR debut in February
First order of business: It's still very much possible that Danica Patrick's first race under the NASCAR umbrella will be Feb. 13.

AT DAYTONA, by the way.

On the heels of reports that her Nationwide Series debut would come the following Saturday -- Feb. 20 -- in Fontana, Calif., everyone with a vested interest in this new wave of Danica Mania wanted to correct the story Friday. In terms of generating interest among potential ticket buyers, attention-needy Fontana was smart to employ the modern version of a banner plane to hype the apparent news.

Too bad for them, but the thunder is probably fleeting.

In a normal sporting endeavor, there would be no logical debate -- you skip Daytona's Nationwide race. A driver who's new to stock cars, new to drafting, new to those white-knuckle plate-racin' gaggles of sheet metal, has little to no chance of keeping pace in a field (mostly) full of Cup Series talent.

That's a far, far different animal than sitting her inside an ARCA car (an old DEI-built car, by the way) that will be among the best half-dozen rides in the field Feb. 6. Danica, here Friday through Sunday testing for that ARCA 200, will have every opportunity to run at or near the front in that race.

But to try the Daytona Nationwide race, then tell her to basically forget everything she may have learned during the restrictor-plate craziness, doesn't seem to be the wisest competitive strategy.

Of course, when has auto racing ever been purely about competition? With the "Danica 200" ARCA race Feb. 6, followed the next day by a new round of Super Bowl ads featuring Danica's "Go Daddy" benefactors, there's little chance NASCAR, ESPN and Daytona International Speedway will let the momentum train pass them by.

Danica, to her credit, seems to recognize the potential pitfalls of leaping into the deep end so soon -- "it's quite an arena to run my first Nationwide (race), with 30 stock-car guys out there," she said.

But the fine-tuned leverage enjoyed by sponsors, networks and sanctioning bodies are a mighty force to hold at bay. This thing cuts both ways: In the future (near and long term) Danica will undoubtedly try to take advantage of a NASCAR stage that burns brighter and longer than her familiar Indy-car locales. NASCAR will do the same. And both are smart to do just that.

In case you doubt the potential star power, you should've been at the track Friday. All of the major racing media outlets showed up for the first day of a three-day ARCA test. Don't bother looking it up, just trust me when I say that sentence has never been written before.

After waiting out a long rain delay, Danica and the others got in just a handful of laps before rain returned and shut things down for the day. She then performed well during a round of media interviews. The topics were fairly predictable, and the answers refreshingly honest:

· On the speed of a stock car, as opposed to the lightning-fast Indy-cars: "Without making anyone mad . . . it did feel a little slow, actually. At Indy, we're doing 230 miles per hour. We're about 50 miles per hour slower than that. You do notice it."

· On the crude handling, compared to her customary ride: "With the way these cars move, I don't think I'd want to go 230 in them. The car moves around a lot. I'm sure there'll be plenty of moments when I say, 'Wow, that felt too fast.' "

The strangest adjustment involved the simple matter of getting into the car. Climbing through a window into a tight cockpit is quite different than an Indy-car, which basically involves squeezing into an open tub. She learned quickly, she said, to tuck her hair into the back of her uniform before climbing in.

How long it takes her to feel fully comfortable, and to let her hair down, is another story entirely. For NASCAR, the networks and the Boys in Ticketing, the sooner the better. Not that they'd admit to needing a boost, of course.

"I don't think I would use the word need," said NASCAR president Mike Helton, who just happened to stop by the track Friday, "but it doesn't hurt us to have good story lines, and this is a good story line." NewsJournalOnline.com

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