Danica Patrick: Exactly What Are They Teaching Her About NASCAR?

M Brian LadnerCorrespondent IJune 27, 2010

At least a half-dozen times during Saturday's New England 200 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Danica Patrick made statements or asked questions over the team radio that would have been easy to answer for most people who had watched a NASCAR race or "Days of Thunder" or even "Talladega Nights." 

Before jumping to your keyboard and typing a nasty reply about what a misogynist I am, or how I must resent Danica and how she's taking up somebody's spot who is far more deserving in a racing discipline she doesn't belong in, let me stop you right there. 

Sure there are other drivers out there who have put in the time and effort to be better prepared stock car drivers than she.

And it may not be fair that she gets all the attention and all these sponsor dollars and a quality ride in a Junior Motorsports car while they toil away in the lower ranks or in lesser equipment. That's just how the game is played.

That's a whole article topic in itself. But it's not what this article is about.

Moreover, that is not what I am about. To begin with, I am a Danica-maniac. Okay, maybe I don't qualify for "maniac" level status, but I'm a big fan.

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I not only own die-casts of her IndyCars from the past few years, but I also own a couple of Danica T-shirts and a really cool No. 7 hat that I wear quite frequently. 

[And this from someone who owns more "M&M" and "Electric" gear (including a 3d "Volt" tattoo) than I'm guessing 95% of all Kyle Busch fans out there.]

The first of those Danica T-shirts I bought when first released two years ago—a special "Danica's First Win" shirt commemorating her win at Twin Ring Motegi on April 30, 2008.

So I am no "Johnny-come-lately" to the so-called "Danica-mania bandwagon." I may not be an expert on where she finished in every race since she started in the IRL, but whenever I'm watching an Indy race, I'm pulling for Danica to do well.

And the same holds true of her move into racing stock cars. I didn't expect that she was going to come out and start reeling off top 10s every race (although her Daytona ARCA finish was quite impressive), but I am pulling for her to succeed every time she gets into her Go-Daddy Nationwide car.

True, I'm sure I'd be cheering for Rowdy should it ever come down to a race between the two of them for the checkered flag, but I don't see that happening anytime soon so I'll deal with what I'd do should that possibility arise down the road.

That being said, I can now get back to my point...

At least for me, the first major telling signs of her lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of NASCAR came when Patrick became involved in an incident with Morgan Shephard on (ironically enough) lap No. 7.

I have since read questions and comments made before this incident that also display her lack of knowledge of the basics of stock car racing, but I wasn't aware of them at the time so for the purposes of this article, they don't count.

Going into one of the turns the two were side by side with Shephard on the inside and it looked like he got loose and slid up into her, which ended up spinning her around and into the wall.

"He totally took me out" she was heard to say. Later, she asked if he wouldn't be given a penalty of some sort for his actions on the track.

Immediately my mind raced back to her radio chatter at the ARCA race in Daytona, when Patrick asked how long red flags normally lasted. "As long as it takes" was the first thing that shot through my head at the time.

At first I thought what I was seeing on Twitter and what I was hearing on TV was a joke. A penalty? For getting loose and relying upon the old "eight wheels are better than four" maxim?

And of all people, a penalty for Shephard? The 68-year-old roller-skating "Racing for Jesus" car driver who is so well-liked in the garage that other drivers have, in the past, chipped in to buy him tires so he can compete in the next week's race?

That Morgan Shephard?

But sure enough, there it was, streaming across my screen as reporter after reporter in tweet after tweet repeated the same thing. And it didn't stop there.

Later in the race she was heard to ask crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. "Got any tips on how to get this car to turn?" 

A few laps later when trying to pass one of the backmarkers she asked "How do I set him up? ... Every time I try to move past somebody I just lose time. I don't know how to do it."

And most telling in my mind was when she asked with surprise "Did I do something? Why would he just hit my corner?" after another driver tapped her to get her loose to make a pass. 

After Eury Jr. explained to her that other drivers in NASCAR often loosen other cars up by doing that to make them drift up the track so they can pass, she asked "So that's like a technique?'

The statements and the questions listed were but a few and I'm sure were just the ones that I saw come across twitter or get mentioned on television so they stood out in my mind. 

Now I'm sure to your average baseball or football fan who knows little to nothing about NASCAR, those would seem like sensible questions. They may even seem quite advanced. 

But for anyone who has watched a NASCAR race or even half paid attention to the commentators during a race, these things are fairly common knowledge. 

Or at least they should be.

The big question here is, why aren't they common knowledge for the driver of the No. 7 Go-Daddy Chevrolet?

Why is it that the diminutive driver at the center of this year's biggest open-wheeler-turning-to-NASCAR story knows almost nothing about racing in NASCAR?

Of course, there are many possible answers and no way for me to know which is most correct. But I'll take a shot at a few anyways.

It could be that she is just having a much more difficult time retaining what she learned and what she might have been taught months ago.

And now that she's been living back in the world where drivers hold their line, where drivers' cars never touch, and where penalties are handed down for not abiding by those rules, she's having to re-learn these things.

But I don't think that's it. I'm sure it's part of it, but not the most important part.

Jeff Gluck, in his article on SBNation.com, had listened to much of the radio chatter that went on between Patrick and her team throughout the race and was tweeting about it all through the race. 

Afterwards he interviewed her (as well as Shephard) and came to the conclusion that it was stunning to listen to her radio chatter and find out how little she knows about NASCAR.

"Danica was asked about why she seemed so surprised about the contact between drivers, as if no one had ever bothered to warn her. Either way, it was clear she hasn't watched much NASCAR," Gluck wrote.

The real answer lies, I believe, not in Patrick's "lack of talent" or "lack of potential" as I saw splattered about various sites on the net.

In fact, I believe the fact that she managed to qualify decently and that she managed to finish the race despite the early mishap and even seemed to learn as the race progressed—improving her lap times as the race went on—shows she has plenty of potential. 

What she seems to be lacking is the ability to actualize that potential. Many people commented about how down Patrick seemed after the race and about how her explanations of what she had learned showed how far she still has to go before becoming at least a decent NASCAR driver.

And if she's left to her own devices and only ever learns anything while actually racing on the track, it will be a long and possibly painful process—or at least longer and more painful than it needs to be.

One of the comments left on Gluck's article hit the nail on the head when the writer (Christopher Leone) discussed how "the folks at JR Motorsports need to be viewing this as a wake-up call."

He brought up a pre-race interview with Tony Eury Jr. which echoed what I heard in pre-race interview with Danica on ESPN. 

Both talked about how Eury Jr. was learning to adapt to her way of doing things—in particular she discussed how he had told her to describe how the car was behaving in terms she was comfortable with, using terms heard more often in the Indy world like "understeer" and "oversteer," and letting him do the translation. 

In short, the comments by Leone and the general feeling left by the Patrick interview left one feeling like Danica was being left to be Danica and the team was adapting to her instead of the other way around.

And that, according to Leone, was definitely not the way to go about preparing her to race in NASCAR.

"If Danica is ever going to succeed in stock cars, she needs to learn the established way of doing things—beating and banging, none of the 'respecting the line' you get in IndyCar. JRM needs to drive that into her, and fast. Maybe more ARCA time would have helped."

Just as telling was an article that came across the wire about how Patrick had received help from Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself.

According to that article, after Patrick arrived Thursday night, she and Earnhardt Jr. paid a surreptitious visit to the track and the two did a ride-around the track in a street car. 

"Well, Dale Jr. took time out of his schedule [Thursday] night to go around the track for a couple of laps—I don't know how secret this stuff is, he's Dale Jr., he can go anywhere," Patrick said Friday after Nationwide Series practice.

"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."

"I got in [Thursday] night after, I don't know ... I'm not big like all these guys, and I don't have my own jet. So I flew commercial here—and regretted every minute of it, while I sat in Philadelphia during the rainstorm and sat there for a couple of hours. I got into the track at like 8 o'clock [Thursday] night, and Dale took time to do that. It's stuff like that that makes a huge difference for me."

Which begs the question, what else, if anything, has JRM or anyone else been doing to ensure that Patrick is getting the education in the "cultural differences" between the two racing disciplines that she will need to succeed?

It seems that a simple course in NASCAR 101 might help immensely and could easily be undertaken without breaking any of NASCAR's rules against testing.

True, JRM did arrange for some testing at the Milwaukee Mile to prepare her to race on flat tracks, but has anybody sat down with her and gone over basic racing NASCAR strategies and techniques? 

Has anybody advised her to watch some races—Cup or Nationwide—and come back with any questions she may have about what she perceives as differences between what she sees and what happens during an IndyCar race?

And although it may seem silly, has anyone thought to sit down with Danica and watch a recent Nationwide race with her, going over not only racing tips and tricks but also familiarizing her with the other drivers in the field?

Every other driver on the track knows approximately what to expect when they hear their spotter say that the No. 18 or the No. 22 is nearby, but does she?

Does she know what to expect when racing around Stephen Wallace, Brendan Gaughan, or Morgan Shephard? 

I'm guessing not, or she probably would have never made the statement that Morgan Shephard "totally took her out." 

The blame for her not knowing these things cannot all be laid at JRM's doorstep—although if I was a team owner, manager, or crew chief of a driver with Danica's visibility, I'd make pretty darn sure she was getting the education she needed to succeed from every possible avenue.

Patrick also needs to look at this experience as a chance to learn—not just the things she found out about on the track during the race, but that she has a lot more to learn and that some homework off the track might be in order.

All in all, it just goes to show that being able to control the car and do decently when practicing and qualifying when you are essentially out there running by yourself is not all it takes to succeed when going fast, turning left, and trying not to hit anything.

Yes, she may learn the rest—one race at a time—but it seems that a simple course in NASCAR 101 would quicken her education far faster than letting her learn one question at a time during the races themselves.

As usual, that's just my $0.18. What's yours?

(Photo credit: M Brian Ladner)

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