For the past two weeks, NASCAR was abuzz with the news of Danica Patrick's historic fourth-place finish in the Nationwide race at Las Vegas.
Did this prove Danica is for real in NASCAR? Could she win a Nationwide race this season? Was she ready to run with the big boys? Might she even join a Sprint Cup team such as Joe Gibbs Racing or Red Bull in 2012?
Well-respected columnists wrote articles imploring her to make the switch to NASCAR full-time, claiming that Danica needs NASCAR and NASCAR needs her to be the sport's next big star, as though she were the second coming of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Danica mania reached fever pitch, despite the fact that Las Vegas was her first top-10 in 16 Nationwide starts.
At times, the only voice of reason seemed to be that of Patrick herself.
She looked at the larger picture and recognized that one strong run doesn't mean she'll run up front every race and tempered the enthusiasm over her Las Vegas run with modest goals at Bristol.
In the end, Patrick did not achieve her goal of a top-20 finish at Bristol. Success in NASCAR often doesn't transfer from track to track, and high-banked half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway presents a unique challenge for any driver.
She fell off the lead lap early in the race and while running two laps down on lap 247, she was spun around after contact with Ryan Truex.
With heavy damage to her GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, Patrick took her car to the garage and finished the race 29th.
Patrick blamed Truex for the incident after climbing from her wrecked car. However, replays showed that neither driver was conclusively at fault. Coming out of turn 2, Patrick washed up the track while Truex simultaneously moved slightly down the track from the high line he had been running.
Patrick went spinning down the back straightaway and slammed into the wall.
Truex accepted responsibility for the incident and apologized to Danica for ending her day. Speaking after the race, Truex said, "it’s a racing deal—it’s Bristol, it's tight and things like that happen. I definitely feel bad about it.”
In the end, it was a dose of reality for Patrick and those who have been speculating on her future in NASCAR.
She has improved by leaps and bounds during her off-and-on relationship with NASCAR this season and last, but Patrick has a long ways to go before she can establish herself in NASCAR.
In order to do that, she will likely need to commit to NASCAR full-time. Patrick is driving the full IndyCar season and will not return to a Nationwide race until June. If she is serious about establishing herself in NASCAR, Patrick needs the experience that can only come from running a full season in stock cars.
The top five at Las Vegas was a great confidence-booster. Patrick is driving great equipment at JR Motorsports and she has shown flashes of the talent needed to succeed in NASCAR.
But her rocky debut at Bristol is evidence that expectations for Patrick must be cautious until she proves her ability to run at a variety of different venues.
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