Danica Patrick: 6 Toughest Rivalries in Her First Full-Time NASCAR Season

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2012

Danica Patrick: 6 Toughest Rivalries in Her First Full-Time NASCAR Season

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    For Danica Patrick, NASCAR becomes a full-time gig where she intends to step up her game, contend for wins and silence naysayers. Odds are she will do just that.

    Patrick has a strong fanbase and also has the ability to dismiss the negativity critics tend to expound upon.

    One thing the diminutive driver of the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet has is confidence, and she backs that up with the ability to drive a race car.

    Patrick has been a quick study, given she has only run part-time schedules in 2010 and 2011 for JR Motorsports. Her two seasons together equate to about two thirds of a full-time season.

    Despite her minimal seat time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, she wrangled a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas in 2011, making her the highest finishing female in a NASCAR national series, ever.

    Now it is time for Patrick to prove herself not only against the top Nationwide drivers, but against Cup drivers who infiltrate the series.

    In addition to running a full schedule in the second tier of NASCAR, she will tackle 10 Cup races behind the wheel of the No. 10 for Stewart-Haas Racing.

    Patrick's goals have been modest with hopes of finishing in the top 20 during 2010 and in the top 15 during the 2011 season.

    Now her goals will change as she goes for wins and top-10 finishes. To reach that goal, she will have a field of talented drivers who will be racing really hard against her.

    Certainly, the ultimate goal of every driver is to win races, but the reality is only a select group usually are true contenders for wins.

    Often Cup drivers dominate the Nationwide races though they don't run for points.

    The young guns of the NASCAR Nationwide Series are quickly marking their turf. In this slideshow we will focus on the toughest rivalries Patrick will face in that series.

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1. Elliott Sadler

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    Elliott Sadler dropped down from the Cup series in 2011 and was expected to be a hot contender for the NASCAR Nationwide title.

    Sadler drove for Kevin Harvick Inc. and finished second in the point standings. KHI was closed and those Nationwide cars will now be running out of Richard Childress Racing.

    Once again this year, Sadler will be a top pick to run for the championship with his RCR equipment.

    This is a driver who really wants to prove he is the big dog in the second-tier series with hopes of landing a ride in a Cup car, perhaps in 2013.

    Danica Patrick may do well to watch and learn from Sadler, because chances are he will be in front of her during most races.

2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. nearly lost his ride when Jack Roush parked him because he was tearing up equipment, but the time out taught this driver patience.

    In 2011, he roared back as the NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. During last season, Stenhouse had two wins, 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes.

    Stenhouse and Danica Patrick have a rapport, and the two have discussed the learning curve in the Nationwide series.

    They share qualities like popularity, confidence, being quick learners and the ability to rein in aggressiveness on the track.

    Look for Stenhouse to be a strong contender for wins with his Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 in 2012. You may see him working with Patrick at times, but he won't be cutting her any slack.

3. Cole Whitt

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    Cole Whitt, the 20-year-old California native, is coming out of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2012 to pilot the No. 88 for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

    He was suddenly picked to replace Aric Almirola in the 88 when he accepted the job as driver of the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

    Whitt finished ninth in the NCWTS point standings with one pole, two top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 2011.

    JR Motorsports saw the potential with this young man, and he will be competing for Rookie of the Year this season.

    Whitt will be teammates with Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during select races that the boss runs.

    He will be working with Patrick on the track, but his agenda is to win. Competition should be tough between the two drivers.

4. Austin Dillon

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    Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, piloted the No. 3 NASCAR Camping World Truck to the series championship.

    Dillon now steps up to the Nationwide series behind the wheel of a black No. 3 Chevrolet out of Richard Childress Racing.

    This will not be a debut performance for Dillon in the second-tier of NASCAR. He has run several races that resulted in four top-10 finishes.

    Dillon is on a roll with his truck series title and new race cars from RCR that will be first-class rides.

    He is a talented driver and may well be running hard with Danica Patrick toward the lead pack as they both tackle the new season.

5. Justin Allgaier

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    Justin Allgaier drives the No. 31 Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports and finished third in the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series point standings with one win, six top-five and 17 top-10 finishes.

    Allgaier will begin his fourth full season in the Nationwide series this year. He finished sixth in the points during 2009 and fourth his second year in 2010.

    The driver nicknamed "Li'l Gator" is a tough competitor who will likely give Danica Patrick a few lessons along the way she may not have wanted.

    Allgaier is one of the young stars in the Nationwide series who will be running for the title and could easily better his finish in the points once again in 2012.

6. Brian Scott

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    Brian Scott currently drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. He finished eighth in the 2011 point standings with two top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

    Scott came out of the Truck series to debut in the Nationwide series with seven starts in 2009. During the 2010 season he finished 14th in the point standings.

    Scott would have a much better set of statistics if he wasn't involved in more than a normal share of accidents.

    The 2011 season showed him not finishing four races because of accidents and an engine failure in February at Daytona. He was actually involved in more accidents than four that caused him to finish down numerous laps.

    Scott has good equipment, and if he can learn to better control his car and gain some patience, he could easily be a contender for wins and more top-10 finishes.

    Look for some encounters with Scott and Danica Patrick. He more than likely is not going to be one who will give her much racing room.