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Sunday, February 7, 2010

This Danica thing might end up working after all

She couldn’t have scripted it any better.

Danica Patrick, the focus of more media attention than any debuting stock car driver in a really long time, could have crashed and burned in her stock car debut.

She could have come to Daytona, and been one of the many cars that smashed the wall and flipped during the annual wreckfest known as the Daytona ARCA race. That was what tons of doubters who didn’t think she had what it takes to drive a stock car were predicting as she embarked on a switch to NASCAR racing.

But that didn’t happen Saturday … Instead, she proved a lot of people wrong.

She didn’t do anything crazy, trying her best to stay out of trouble, and even made a solid save when ex-Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. decided to run her into the grass. Instead of losing control of he car and wrecking, she stayed in control of the car and then proceeded to move up about 20 spots in the remaining 30 laps to finish in 6th place.

With the exception of pulling out a miracle win, it couldn’t have gone any better for Danica in her first career stock car race.

We shouldn’t get too excited and declare her a successful stock car driver. I recognize that she was racing in a low-level series, against competition much less impressive than she’ll face in the Nationwide series, and that she had arguably the best car in the field (her car was prepared by JR Motorsports, vs. mostly a bunch of mom-and-pop operations in ARCA).
Also, I recognize that this is restrictor plate racing, and lots of crazy results happen that don’t always indicate a driver’s true talent level (see the long list of 1-time race winners at plate tracks).

But despite those advantages, the fact remains that Danica Patrick had never competed in a stock car race in her life prior to Saturday, and was still learning how to drive these cars. Even before and during the race, she was still learning things about the car itself and how to operate it, and asking lots of questions about the rules of racing, pitting, etc. Even with a better car, the opportunity remained for her to royally screw up and prove all her detractors right.

But she didn’t.

My attitude toward Danica is that we shouldn’t dismiss her unless she gives us a reason to believe she can’t compete in NASCAR. Honestly, with the exception of an increase of annoying commercials, her success in NASCAR can only do good things for the sport because of all the positive attention it will bring from the mainstream sports media.

I’m hoping Danica will run the Nationwide race next week, as I’d like to see her compete against some better talent than she faced Saturday. More importantly, I can’t wait to see how she does at a non-plate track, as then we’ll start to truly see what she can do in a stock car.

She may still end up failing in NASCAR , but one thing is clear after her Saturday performance … Danica isn’t some slouch who’s going to go into turn 1 on the first lap and wreck the field, as some had predicted.

If you can survive the mess that is the ARCA race at Daytona, you’ve definitely got some level of talent as a racecar driver. Whether that success continues will be up to Danica … we know the equipment will be good, so the results will be all on her shoulders.

One thing’s for sure: It will be fun to watch.

Hendrick back in full force
Hendrick Motorsports is back at his old tricks, taking the top two spots in pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 with the Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teams. In a way it means nothing, as positions change every 5 seconds during a plate race, but it also means a lot. Hendrick served notice that as the new season begins, he has no intentions of giving up his stranglehold on the championship.

On the other end of the scoring tower, Bill Elliot, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek qualified well enough to guarantee themselves a spot in the race, but about a dozen other guys will be racing for just a few transfer spots. I would explain it in detail, but the qualifying process at Daytona is so complicated that this blog entry would resemble “War and Peace” by the time I was done. Instead, I’ll just say that some big names, including Casey Mears, will probably end up missing the race.


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