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Friday, November 4, 2011
Bumpier ride for Danica Patrick?

By Viv Bernstein

The tragedy that halted the IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16 abruptly ended the season for the open-wheel racing series. All that was left, after the crash that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon and forced the cancellation of the much-hyped finale, was an offseason of anguish.

But not for Danica Patrick. Her offseason will have to wait. Tragedy or not, she is about to strap herself into a race car once again.

"It's what we do," veteran IndyCar and NASCAR driver John Andretti said. "Richard Petty lost his grandson Adam, and Adam and I were close. ... I had a huge attachment to the Petty family and I heard Richard say this and it really struck home with me. He said, 'You know, if we were farmers and we had something like that happen on the farm, we're still farmers and the next day we go farming.' He said you can't stop doing what you do."

And racing is what Patrick does.

So her new career as a full-time NASCAR driver will begin as scheduled Saturday with a Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. She will follow that with races at Phoenix on Nov. 12 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 to wrap up the season. That's in advance of a full Nationwide schedule in 2012 and several Sprint Cup races as well.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick will wear this helmet Saturday in honor of Dan Wheldon. It's her first race since the two-time Indy 500 champion was killed in a crash at the IndyCar World Championships on Oct. 16 in Las Vegas.

It will be a different world for Patrick, with the competition, media exposure and grind of a schedule that are unlike anything she has experienced in the IndyCar Series. Although she saw some of that in her two years as a part-timer, Patrick will now face the full brunt of life in NASCAR -- starting with the race car.

Indy cars weigh about 1,500 pounds, are lower to the ground, have open cockpits, have much more downforce and have 650-hp engines that can reach speeds of 230 mph.

Stock cars weigh about 3,500 pounds, are taller, have roofs and have much less downforce. They are more difficult to handle because they lack "grip" and slide around the track. Sprint Cup cars have 850-hp engines (Nationwide cars are about 650) and can reach speeds of 200 mph.

"Everything about the car is generally not going to handle as well, whether you're trying to go forward, whether you're trying to stop or turn,'' said three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr., who switched to NASCAR in 2008. "It doesn't want to do as well as what the Indy car has. You have to be a lot more gentle. A lot of times you have to almost treat it like there's an egg between your foot and the gas pedal. You don't ever want to break that egg.

"You've got more horsepower and more weight and less grip, so it's going to want to spin the tires on the throttle. You go in there, hit the brakes, you go in too hard you have issues there. There's a lot of different things that you can get yourself in trouble with just overdriving the stock car."

Trouble is easy to find and create in NASCAR. Unlike IndyCar racing, where cars that touch often wreck, stock car racing is a contact sport. "Rubbin' is racing,'' as they say, and that's what the fenders and bumpers are for. Patrick already has had a few bumps in the two seasons she has raced part time in NASCAR. It seems to suit her style.

"There were some racing situations where some people got into her and she came back and basically made a statement that you're not going to push me around on the racetrack," said Joe Balash, director of the Nationwide Series. "She's a tough competitor. I think that style of driving will hold true for her."

Patrick will no longer have to muscle race cars without power steering, as in IndyCar, but she'll have to adjust to the heat inside stock cars. Much of her stock car racing to date has been at the beginning and end of the season, when temperatures are not as high.

That will change now that she's a full-timer with 33 Nationwide races next season plus 10 Sprint Cup events, more than doubling the 17 races in IndyCar this year as she prepares for a full-time Cup ride in 2013.

"The stock car's a lot hotter inside," said Sarah Fisher, who drove in the IndyCar Series and also competed in stock cars. "Certainly heat training is something that I did to prepare myself for that."

Even if she can manage the bulky car, use her bumpers and fenders and handle the heat, that doesn't mean Patrick will be successful in a stock car. There's more to it than that.

"The biggest difference between the two cars is the feel and the ability to take a race car that may not be perfect and getting more out of it, where the Indy car, if you've got a 10th-place car, I don't know if you can make any better than 10th place with it," said J.J. Yeley, who drove Indy cars in the 1990s before switching to NASCAR. "With stock cars, because they slide around a little bit more, sometimes you can get a little bit more out of an ill-handling car or a lesser car, whereas an Indy car, it's very, very difficult to do."

That's where Patrick's biggest adjustment remains to be seen. Indy cars use computers that provide information to crews, who can adjust the car to make it faster. That's not allowed in NASCAR. All of the information about the handling of the race car must be conveyed by the driver. It's up to Patrick to diagnose issues with the car and communicate with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to make the proper changes.

She seems to be adjusting to the demands so far, as Patrick has improved in her second year on the circuit. She needed 13 races her first season before she was able to finish on the lead lap. She has done that four times so far this year with three races to go.

Patrick's best performance in NASCAR to date was at the same Las Vegas racetrack where Wheldon was killed. Patrick wheeled her No. 7 Chevrolet to fourth place in March. It was enough to make some salivate at the possibilities. If the most popular driver in the IndyCar Series can be competitive in NASCAR, what might that mean for the Nationwide Series, which has struggled to establish an identity? There's already a bump in media coverage whenever Patrick races and a buzz at the track when she's there.

"I think she will be one of the elements that will tune viewers into the Nationwide races,'' Balash said. "She's already done that in the races she's competed in. She brings with her some celebrity status along with her driving status.

"When I go to the tower for a race and I'm able to look down at the souvenir trailers, there are some long lines at the GoDaddy trailer for people looking for Danica merchandise. I think merchandise-wise, she's moving the needle."

Patrick will find herself back at Las Vegas next March, her first race there since Wheldon's accident. She will be in a different race car this time, but will she be in a safer car as well? That depends on whom you ask.

"I wouldn't say stock car racing is safer,'' Fisher said. "I think all sports are dangerous in their own element."

Stock cars are built with steel tubes with crushable front ends and roof flaps to keep cars from going airborne in a crash. There has not been a fatality in any of NASCAR's three national series since Dale Earnhardt died during the 2001 Daytona 500, triggering a focus on safety that led to the current race car.

Indy cars are made of crushable carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core that absorbs energy in a crash. As with NASCAR, the race cars are safer than they used to be, but Wheldon's car became airborne in the wreck and slammed into the catch fence above the so-called soft walls on the track.

"It does feel safer," Patrick, who met with the media at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday, said of stock cars. "It felt safer two years ago when I first got in a Nationwide car. I'm pleased to have a roof over my head this weekend. Accidents still happen, but not a lot of serious head injuries. Having my head covered definitely adds a level of comfort."

NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick told driver Kasey Kahne not to race for the $5 million bonus in the IndyCar event in Las Vegas, the same bonus that drew Wheldon to the race. Five-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has said he won't race Indy cars now that he has started a family. After the crash, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick tweeted, "glad I have a roof and fenders."

"I've told people in the past that the smaller hit that I had in IndyCar hurt more than the biggest one that I had in stock cars," Hornish said.

So it will be a soft landing for Patrick in NASCAR in some ways. How bumpy it gets from there? That depends on her.