Danica revels in the NASCAR spotlight

The crash that sent Danica Patrick’s wrecked No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet — with sparks cascading out from under it — across the finish line in the Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona International Speedway on Friday signaled a lot more than her 10th place position.
It signaled, for one and all to see, that Ms. Patrick has made up her mind on where she wants to race next season.

And it won’t be in the IZOD IndyCar Series that makes its annual stop in Toronto this week.

In what ESPN called Patrick’s “Wow" moment, the 29-year-old had her most complete outing of her part-time, two-year voyage into the world of NASCAR at stock car racing’s most famous track.

You could see in her joyous celebration afterwards that Patrick was clearly happier at finishing 10th in a stock car than any of her finishes this season in IndyCar for Andretti Autosport.

Patrick, like other open wheel racers before her, discovered early that there is one thing that makes NASCAR different from IndyCar: These cars are just plain more fun to drive.

Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier say the very same thing after each of their excursions into the world of big sedan racing.

And Patrick’s face said that and more after she had battled and beaten some of the best stock car drivers on the planet — leading 13 laps along the way — in the NNS Daytona event.

Even though her car was all banged up from a last lap tangle with veteran Mike Wallace, Patrick was running up and down pit lane sharing high-fives with her JRM crew guys.

“I had a hell of a lot of fun," she said. “I felt I really had a fast car."

To try to understand why Patrick was so happy, all one had to do was check out the grandstand as she took the lead for the final time on lap 96 of the 100-lap race.

The crowd was on its feet cheering as if she were the reincarnation of Dale Earnhardt himself. And don’t kid yourself, these were NASCAR fans, from deep in the south east, where the sport was born.

This season, much more so than last year when she was the fish out of water girl who knew hardly anything about the culture or the mechanics of driving a big, heavy stock car, Patrick is getting the hang and parlance of NASCAR down, nearly pat.

That much was clear as she shouted instructions over the car radio to JRM teammate Aric Almirola, with whom she had paired up to create some drafting speed on Daytona’s high-banked 2.5 mile superspeedway, as they caught up to the leaders going into the final lap.

“Let’s go … fast here," Patrick told Almirola. “We just need to catch this group and go by them. We’re doing the right thing here. You just follow my ass, OK?"

Now that’s what a NASCAR driver sounds like.

One crucial area where Patrick had earlier appeared to fail in her NASCAR classes, was the ability to get right up on the bumper of the car in front to either push it forward or out of the way.

In open wheel racing, where Patrick grew up and learned her trade, this was the exact opposite of how to make a pass. She just couldn’t bring herself to “put the bumper" to the car in front of her.

Somehow, this season Patrick finally saw the light and on Friday she was pushing Almirola through traffic like a seasoned veteran.

“I learned a lot, that’s for sure," she said. “I was glad I pushed a little. Because I was thinking, ‘Man, am I only good as a leader?’ I had quite a bit of fun."

Even hard nosed veterans, who normally don’t like to race with rookies, were quick to notice how far Patrick has come this season.

Tony Stewart, who would love to have Patrick on his Stewart Haas Racing team next season, was one of those who watched her closely and teamed up with her for some two-by-two racing, even sending a radio message to Almirola to keep Patrick in front because “she’s doing a good job."

While Patrick is sticking to her mantra that she has not made a decision yet about next season, it says here that if you want to see her race this season buy a ticket to the Honda Indy Toronto this week because she won’t be coming back next year. Canoe Slam Sports

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