Learning curve is steep for Danica Patrick
Tony Stewart had access to lap after redundant lap in a Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac when he left IndyCar for NASCAR in 1998. The former IndyCar champion is now the defending and three-time Sprint Cup champion.
When Danica Patrick left IndyCar after seven seasons to begin her first full Nationwide Series season, she was limited by current NASCAR rules to far fewer laps before she arrived at Daytona International Speedway to practice for the season-opening Nationwide race. She tested a Sprint Cup car just once this offseason before making her series debut in the Daytona 500.
And that matters. Most open-wheel drivers who have attempted to make the career switch to NASCAR have struggled mightily in making the transition from nimble, ground-hugging machines to their heavier, more powerful, yet more restive stock car counterparts. Lack of practice is a factor.
"It's difficult," said former open-wheel, current Nationwide Series driver Sam Hornish Jr. "It's a lot different."
Though NASCAR race cars are aided by power steering, their lack of responsiveness and difficulty in honing -- in comparison to Indy cars -- make them a challenge to control, especially at superspeedways where navigating the draft in packs is crucial. The NASCAR-limited lack of in-car technology forces drivers to trust instincts and intuition that open-wheel converts have yet to develop. The use of sheet metal as a tool and a form of self-expression is also an acquired skill, one that has delighted Patrick. While contact between Indy cars usually results in calamity, it is used to move out slower cars, help push a partner to victory or convey anger in NASCAR.
Compounding matters in the transition are the restrictions on practice. NASCAR has gradually reduced testing opportunities as a cost-cutting measure, and in 2009 enacted a testing ban at tracks that conduct national series events. The cost has been high in terms of crucial moments of understanding lost. Mistakes once committed and learned on empty tracks in front of team personnel are now played out in races at the cost of race cars, reputations and sponsor confidence.
Stewart, who left JGR to race for his own team in 2009, went from an early sounding board for Patrick's curiosity about NASCAR to her Sprint Cup team owner. His open-wheel background provides a commonness of experience and ability to offer informed advice.
"I've been where she is. I know what those cars feel like, so for her to ask a question about something that's going on, or a feel, it's easier for me to understand why she's asking that question," Stewart said. "... I think that's what is going to make it fun and make it a natural fit for us, because we do have that parallel and comparison with each other."
Patrick, who won one race in 115 IndyCar starts and never finished higher than fifth in driver points, had preseason notions of running "for a championship." At Las Vegas last weekend, she acknowledged that goal was premature and she must temper expectations. Yet she is insulated from some of the pressures of her fellow open-wheel transplants because of her broader marketability and her professed unconditional support from GoDaddy.com founder Bob Parsons.
Hornish didn't feel as secure, he admitted, despite his long relationship with team owner Roger Penske.
"I won 19 races in 116 starts on the IndyCar side, three championships in the eight years I was over there and I only raced seven full-time seasons. ... When I came over here, I felt like if I didn't have that same kind of success that people were going to doubt me and what I was capable of," Hornish said. "So I probably pushed myself a lot harder than I should have, whereas she's got the sponsorship around her that she's going to be able to do this for a long time. She just needs to be smart about how she goes out there. You don't have to do big things right away. You have to go out there and learn, finish races."
Patrick said, "I don't think there's anything in particular that's blown me away in the transition to stock cars."
Patrick said she is close to becoming a contender on superspeedways. She was encouraged by running inside the top 10 in the final 30 laps at Las Vegas on Saturday after crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was able to tame a loose race car for a final run.
"What's exciting is at Vegas there was 30 or so laps to go in the race and if you come in for a last stop and make a good change and go back, you know what, you might have tuned yourself in and everybody else might have tuned themselves out or something," she said. "You just feel really good in the car and can take advantage of that. That kind of gets me excited.
"I need to be realistic. With the big tracks, the speedways, I think definitely, it's any time, but on the mile-and-a-halfs, it's still a bit away, and on the short tracks, I still have quite a bit to learn to get going on those."
Patrick will attempt the .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway short track on Saturday. She finished 33rd there last season.
Restarts were revealed as an immediate weakness for Patrick at Las Vegas, when she took the green flag sixth but was swarmed and dumped back to 11th after a late caution. She finished 12th. Patrick could attempt to glean knowledge from Stewart -- a master of the restart since late last season who blazed away from Jimmie Johnson to win the Sprint Cup race on Sunday -- but as of Tuesday, she'd had no luck getting a call returned.
"I sent him a text after the race telling him 'good job' and asked if I could come over to talk to him at Bristol about his restarts, and I didn't hear back," she chuckled. "Then again, at the end of last year I was trying to call Tony and leave a voice message and he wasn't answering. His voice mail was full. He's a popular guy. I'm sure being in Vegas, too, I heard he might have wanted to stay until Monday. I'll just go find him."
Success, if it comes, often takes time.
Hornish, a three-time IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, switched from open-wheel to the Sprint Cup program in 2008 and foundered, managing just two top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 106 races. After rejoining Penske for a partial Nationwide program last year, he won at Phoenix -- in his 32nd Nationwide start -- for the first time in NASCAR.
Former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya barely beat the testing ban when he began transitioning to stock cars in 2006. He has two wins in 184 Sprint Cup races.
"Juan made it work. Just some people make it and some people don't," Stewart said. "Sam is a great open-wheel racer and for some reason it's ... he's getting better in the stock car the longer he goes, but it's an easier transition for some versus others. You've seen guys like Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve that never figured it out, and these are guys that have won the Indy 500, won championships and are accomplished race car drivers.
"So there's no blueprint."