It had been nearly four months since JR Motorsports driver Danica Patrick had gotten behind the wheel of her No. 7 GoDaddy.com sponsored Chevrolet.
Along with the expectations for her return came the scrutiny which has followed her since her first Nationwide experience back in February.
Patrick, who flew in on Thursday night, got a bit of a surprise when JR Motorsports team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr, invited her to take a few laps in order to prepare her for Saturday’s New England 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“I got into the track at like 8 o'clock [Thursday] night, and Dale took time to do that. Its stuff like that that makes a huge difference for me," said Patrick during Friday's Nationwide series practice session.
With a layoff of that magnitude, it’s no wonder that Earnhardt would deviate from his busy schedule, for the purpose of showing his driver how to get around the 1.058 mile track in a street car.
"He showed me the line and gave me tips about running out here, whether it's the race or pitting or whatever, or where to go to help your car do different things. It's incredibly helpful,” said Patrick.
Now while Earnhardt can show her how to get around the track, one important aspect of the sport that cannot be taught is once Patrick gets behind the wheel, how will she react to the different situations as they arise?
Patrick is quickly finding out that, "It's going to take time, and I'm going to have to learn a lot of this stuff for myself. Even with everyone's help, you still have to feel it.”
Patrick also added that part of the learning experience involves, “You have to feel it in your gut and your butt and your hands and know for yourself."
Patrick, who originally came into the race because of the experience she has driving in the Indy Racing Series, is clearly having her share of problems trying to adjust to the much heavier Nationwide series car.
The learning curve that was expected so far is getting the best of the Indy Racing Series poster girl, and it once again became apparent when Patrick had contact with 68-year-old Morgan Shepherd only seven laps into the race.
Patrick, who went on to blame Shepherd for racing her a little hard, "I obviously got dumped in the first corner,” said Patrick.
Even though Shepherd said after the race that, “I wasn’t the only one she was holding up, she was holding up other cars too—she will learn it,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd also added that, “There’s two [lanes], right around the bottom and kind of the middle of the track, and she just made it hard to pass."
Shepherd finished with, "We just got together when we went down in the corner. She squeezed me a little bit and we got together and that’s all there was to it.”
Patrick realized after the race that, “It’s part of the process; it’s part of learning. I know these things are going to happen. I was thinking out there at the end that it reminds me a lot of my first short oval races in an Indy Car.”
Patrick went on to say that, “I tried to save it. I don’t know if I was supposed to hit the gas or something. I think these cars, maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do? I don’t know.”
This was barely Patrick’s fifth start in the NNS, and already she has been involved in three wrecks, which is not a very good sign for a driver who supposedly has the makings of NASCAR’s next biggest star according to her fans.
Patrick has no one else to blame except herself, especially when she was given a car that has already proven it can run in the Top Five.
Patrick was heard asking her crew chief Tony Eury Jr. during the race, if she was doing things the right way which further solidifies the fact that she needs to focus on either running in the NNS, or the Indy Racing Series.
Unlike Patrick who finished five laps down in 30th place, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a far better showing when he brought home his No. 88 National Guard/Amp Energy Sprint Cup Chevrolet to an eight place finish on Sunday.
Earnhardt was able to keep his chase hopes alive, and is now sitting 13th in the standings, only three markers behind Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards, who is barely holding on to the 12th and final chase position.
Earnhardt, who entered Sundays race 57 points behind Edwards, had previously scored five top five, and eight top 10 finishes, while leading 351 laps in 21 starts at this 1.058 mile oval.
"I think it is a good start to a turning point, and I was real glad the car ran good," said Earnhardt, who finished eighth after starting 31st.
Earnhardt also added that, “The car was excellent the first half of the race, and then we sort of struggled with it the last half of the race, but we still had a good finish. It still was a competitive car. We're real proud of our run [Sunday], and it's a good move for us in the points."
It’s obvious that Earnhardt is the one who benefited from the Thursday night drive around the track, and if this is any indication of what it will take to get him into the chase, then maybe the secret to Earnhardt’s success actually lies within himself.
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