Darlington's backstretch looms for Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick spent the middle of this week honoring sponsor commitments, including a Thursday news conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where she officially added a major cola company to her lucrative portfolio of endorsement deals.
Business commitments aside, she would rather have been 102 miles southeast in rural South Carolina, coaxing a rental car toward the backstretch wall at Darlington Raceway in preparation for Saturday night's Southern 500. Or peering out the passenger window as Sprint Cup boss/teammate Tony Stewart did the driving, as was the plan for Thursday night.
Patrick will hit that foreboding barrier herself eventually. It's going to happen. It happens to everyone who races at NASCAR's first superspeedway. It is an acquired skill.
"You've really got to be able to get as close as you can to the wall in order to carry your momentum through the corners because you've got to make the straightaways as long as you can," said 2008 Darlington Cup race winner Kyle Busch.
Patrick has long anticipated her first brush with the jutting wall that waits beyond the exit of Turn 2, and plans to speak with Nationwide boss/teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. about how he attained his level of comfort in such proximity to concrete. She has engaged eagerly in NASCAR's acceptable and sometimes necessary car contact after seven seasons in IndyCar, where such business often ruins equipment, but this promises to be more jarring.
"Everybody looks at me funny when I say I am racing Darlington," said Patrick, who has studied in-car videos to help acclimate herself. "I am going off their reactions and their thoughts, and I'm sure they're quite valid."
Patrick will become just the third woman to contest a Sprint Cup race at Darlington, joining Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson. Guthrie finished 16th in 1977, Robinson 42nd in 2002.
Patty Moise's 13th-place finish in a September 2005 Nationwide race is the best finish by a woman in 27 races in various series.
Stewart should have plenty of tour-guide material for his trip with Patrick around the 1.366-mile track, if he cares to rehash some frustrating moments. The three-time and defending series champion and a 46-race winner, Stewart has reached Victory Lane at every Sprint Cup circuit except Darlington and Kentucky Speedway, which has hosted just one race. Stewart needed seven tries to lead his first seven laps at Darlington, in 2002, but was soon sent careening by the spinning car of Buckshot Jones and rammed by Jimmy Spencer. Stewart spent that night in a hospital for observation. He did win a Nationwide race at Darlington in 2008, however.
"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day," he said. "You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on."
At least Patrick will only have to worry about getting a handle on the new iteration of the track, which was repaved in 2007. Whereas the older track was notoriously abrasive and bumpy, and consumed tires, the new surface has yielded higher speeds and a greater reliance on aerodynamics. The racing lanes are narrow and passing is extremely difficult.
"The track is very narrow on entries and exits, so you're always trying to round the place as much as you can. It's very one-groovish," Busch said. "You can't really run side by side there. Any time you get alongside somebody, you basically have to let them go. It's a very big give-and-take type track."
Give-and-take helped define the character of the place from the beginning, when Harold Brasington returned home inspired by a visit to the Indianapolis 500 and sought to bring major league racing to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Brasington's original plans for the 70 acres of former cotton and peanut farmland incorporated a more traditional oval, but he pinched the western edge of the track so as not to disturb a minnow pond favored by former landowner Sherman Ramsey. Turns 3 and 4 are thus sharper and banked slightly higher than Turns 1 and 2, creating a maddening mechanical challenge for crew chiefs hoping to find a compromise setup that makes their car competitive on all parts of the track.
"I'm told it's not going to be so much about the track and getting comfortable and getting up to speed or feeling good, that it's going to be more about learning how to pass there and how that works because it's one lane and one groove," Patrick said. "Getting used to that is going to be the hardest thing."
The so-called Darlington stripes, the near-hallowed smear marks left on the right sides of cars after contact with the backstretch wall, will provide another checked box in Patrick's 10-race Cup work-study program as she readies for an expected full-time launch with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013. Patrick, who finished 38th in the season-opening Daytona 500, quipped during the Cup schedule announcement last fall at Texas Motor Speedway that Darlington "would be a handful." That's why Stewart picked it.
"There's no better time to start that process than now, and we are looking big-picture and looking into the future and looking to the future for the times you're going to have to put a season together," Patrick said of her planned Cup career. "It will be nice to not have to go to really difficult places like Darlington for the first time when we need to worry about points."
The process will be greatly eased -- at least this weekend, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said -- because Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet, run in collaboration with Tommy Baldwin Racing, is 33rd in owner points and therefore assured entry into the 43-car field. Cars outside the top 35 must be qualified into a race, and David Reutimann, who drives the 26 races not contested by Patrick, fell outside briefly after finishing 35th in a controversial finish at Martinsville, Va., five races ago. Safely back inside the top 35, Patrick can focus on logging as many laps as possible, Eury said, instead of being forced to mimic qualifying laps in what would have been a difficult attempt to make the race in her first visit to the track.
Darlington was originally sketched by Stewart as Patrick's Cup debut, but she intervened, asking for the less drive-intensive experience of Daytona, where she had raced previously.
"I sort of thought [debuting at Darlington] would be a high-pressure situation that I didn't feel I'd be able to be as comfortable with, so I wanted my first race in Cup to be in a place where I could worry more about the drivers and the race itself other than driving the car and putting myself at my limit of capabilities right away," she said. "I knew there'd be a lot of attention on my first Cup race, and I'm not going to lie, it kind of feels like I'm going into my first Cup race a little bit."
And into that wall, sooner or later.
ESPN.com's David Newton contributed to this report.