Danica Patrick ready for prime time
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick stepped onto the podium at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday and began rearranging the nameplates, putting team owner Tony Stewart's in a chair and moving hers to the middle of the table.
Told Stewart was on his way, Patrick said, "I got the impression he might be a little while."
She then moved Stewart's tag back to the center and took her originally designated chair at the end of the table.
"We know who's boss," Patrick said softly.
Welcome to Preseason Thunder, where there is as much uncertainty on the track as there was with Patrick figuring out where to sit in her first official news conference as a full-time Sprint Cup driver.
Drivers, crew chiefs and engineers spent most of this first of a three-day test working to understand NASCAR's new "Gen 6" car. Many teams weren't even thinking of drafting or running in packs -- which will be key when they return next month for the Daytona 500 -- until Saturday.
The good news for Patrick: With the new car, she starts with a clean sheet of paper, just like everyone else, even if they have far more experience.
"Who knows," the former IndyCar star said. "Maybe this new car will play into my driving style better than the old one. I'm not really sure. I have heard it drives a little bit more like a Nationwide car, so maybe it will be something that will be more familiar to me.
"I think that especially with a new car, being a new driver, I'm not going to be looking for a feeling that the old car gave me, because I don't really know it that well. That could be a real positive."
This week, this preseason, is all about being positive and gaining confidence for Patrick. It's about keeping expectations realistic and developing a chemistry with new crew chief Tony Gibson and his team that will help everyone improve.
The morning session was a prime example. Patrick felt a vibration after an initial run that had her last, almost 10 seconds behind leader Matt Kenseth with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team, among the 32 cars that had gone out.
Nothing changed after the second run until somebody discovered the brakes were dragging.
The boss, by the way, was 20th in the morning and about the same in the afternoon.
"It's nice to know that the speed is there, so now we will just start with our test plan," Patrick said.
Patrick has stuck to a plan since she decided to leave IndyCar. It began with splitting the 2010 season between IndyCar and the Nationwide Series. It continued last season with a full Nationwide schedule -- she finished 10th overall -- and 10 Sprint Cup races.
Now she believes she's ready for the big time, even though there are those who believe she could have benefited from another Nationwide season.
But that's a debate for cyberspace. Patrick isn't looking back.
"Well, what they say doesn't create my finishes," she said. "It is great that people are talking about me. It's great there is a conversation, but I really try not to read those things. Because at the end of the day, they really don't matter."
Patrick won't leave this test with any firm idea of how she will perform this season. None of us will. This test is more for the engineers and technicians looking for speed.
Most drivers would just as soon skip this test if it wasn't for the new car. The boss might be at the top of the list.
"As far as just riding around by myself, I don't really think you are going to notice anything," Patrick said.
"I win by default, don't I?" Patrick said with a smile.
Patrick feels comfortable with the boss. That's important. It's more important that she feels comfortable with her entire team. When asked about the value of bonding during the next few days at Daytona, that led to a strange exchange.
"It's always good to get a little camaraderie this time of the season," Patrick said.
Said Stewart: "The new guy gets to buy the team dinner."
"Good thing I'm not the new guy," Patrick responded.
"As long as I don't have to buy tonight, I'm happy," Stewart said.
"I'll buy every time -- unless you have expensive taste in wine," Patrick smirked.
Maybe this new car will play into my driving style better than the old one. I'm not really sure. I have heard it drives a little bit more like a Nationwide car, so maybe it will be something that will be more familiar to me.” -- Danica Patrick
Stewart sat there with a goofy look. Those of us who know his drink of choice is Schlitz beer could read the three-time champion's mind.
The important thing here beyond Patrick being comfortable is she is happy, perhaps happier than she's been at any point in her recent racing career. She's put the divorce, which she announced in November, behind her and is focused on building a solid team.
We got a glimpse of what Patrick and Gibson can do in her last Cup race at Phoenix. She was running 12th before a last-lap nudge from Burton sent her in the wall and left her with a 17th-place finish.
"Tony Gibson has said to all of you guys and said to me that we need to create certain expectation levels as we go along and make them realistic, be smart about them and move them slowly," Patrick said. "Everybody has got the right attitude. Everybody is excited."
Patrick's goal this week is no different than that of Carl Edwards and Kenseth, or anybody else working with a new team. You can't win the Daytona 500 or a championship in January, but you can come together as a team.
You can build confidence.
"You have to get up every morning and have the confidence that if you go out and do your very best, that when the circumstances are right you will prevail and win and get what you want," said Edwards, who is working with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig after a disastrous 2012.
Chances are Patrick won't win a race this year. She likely won't win rookie of the year, with two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. being the hands-down favorite as Kenseth's replacement at Roush Fenway Racing.
But in a way Patrick already has what she wants -- a chance to prove herself in NASCAR's top series.
It's not even about being a woman in a man's world anymore. We are -- or should be -- beyond that.
"We are all really confident going into this year," Patrick said. "We just have to be optimistic, keep our heads down and stay positive when it gets tough."
And know when to move aside with the boss on the way.