Danica Patrick Is Running Daytona, But Can She Hang With The Big Boys?

Dustin ParksAnalyst IFebruary 9, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 05:  Danica Patrick (L), driver of the #7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, talks with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. (R), during qualifying for the ARCA Racing Series Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 at Daytona International Speedway on February 5, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

I am the first to admit that I was skeptical of Danica Patrick possibly making the move to NASCAR. I even decided to write my thoughts out and post them on here, saying she needed to earn her way into NASCAR, especially at it's highest level.

Then the rumors started flowing like a raging river. She began talking to people like Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Tony Stewart, and others.

She asked questions, and showed true interest. Owners began talking about it, fans began talking about it. Before you know it, the Associated Press began talking about it.

I began reading, listening, and following closely what has been deemed "Danicamania," wondering if this was for real.

Sure enough, it was no fluke. The press conference was announced, the setting was decided, and an unveiling was in place. Patrick, with the blessing of her Indy Car team, decided to go racing with a roll cage, signing with JR Motorsports, the team led by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

First thing I had come to mind was, "Alright, she's extremely serious about this. A team backed by Hendrick Motorsports means she's in top equipment."

"Maybe this won't be so bad."

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Of course, she had to test the waters. She entered into the ARCA race, one of the preludes to the Budweiser Shootout. It was a moment that the media flocked to. This was a sight that people never thought would actually happen.

I was so curious as to what she would do. I knew that she was set to debut in the Nationwide Series at California, but this is Daytona. The racing world is focused on this track for two weeks. It was only appropriate that Patrick decide to get her feet wet at the "World's Center of Speed."

From the moment the green flag dropped, she played the race safe, and used her head. She didn't make any risky moves and stayed right on the yellow line.

Then, her real test. She gets spun out coming down the front stretch, right in the tri-oval. But, much to my surprise, she kept the car off the wall, did no damage to the body, and simply came to pit road for tires and fuel.

She worked her way from her 24th-place spot on the restart to finish sixth in her stock car debut.

It was only one race, but I was incredibly impressed with how she handled the new challenge.

Now, she and her JR Motorsports team have decided to let her take a chance, and will enter Patrick in Saturday's Nationwide Series opener.

The question is, can she hang with the big boys?

This race is notorious for having many Sprint Cup regulars compete. Earnhardt Jr. himself is going to be at the wheel of the No. 88 entry for his team as Kelly Bires has another commitment.

That in itself is a big advantage for Patrick as she now has a drafting partner to work with.

But having your boss in the race doesn't mean she's ready. The ARCA cars and the Nationwide cars run different packages at restrictor plate tracks. The two biggest differences are the spoiler and the roof.

Much like the Cup cars in the early 2000's, there is a strip along the roof, and the spoiler has a "wicker bill" at the top. Both of these create drag, while at the same time give a bit more control to the driver.

The Nationwide car will react a bit different than her ARCA car, and she'll have to get used to the car sucking up to the field in a quicker fashion.

Not only that, she's got to deal with a lot of the top runners in the Cup Series who will be in the majority of the Nationwide field.

Patrick herself admitted that is the one thing she is most concerned about, running with guys like Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, and others. She wants to earn their respect, but one bad decision or move and the tide would shift.

She is locked into the race because of JR Motorsports acquiring the owners' points from the No. 11, so she is in the field.

But, as much as I am confident in her ability, I'm not convinced that one race is enough for her to be ready. Yes, track time is important, especially someone with only 80 laps in a stock car under race conditions. I just don't think thrusting her into the demon of restrictor plate racing is the best move.

I believe she can do well, the ARCA race proved that. What's got me concerned is that now she's going up against the elite NASCAR drivers, and could easily lose their respect in one move.

We hear constantly of drivers making the "bonehead move" at Daytona or Talladega that takes out half the field. If Patrick happens to be the one in that situation, how does that make her look? More importantly, how does that make Earnhardt Jr. look for hiring her with no stock car experience?

I cannot predict the outcome, I can only hope that she plays it smart and doesn't get risky with the experienced racers.

If she plays her cards right, and races extremely well and with a great amount of intelligence, then even the toughest critics will have to say she belongs in NASCAR.