BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway was less than 30 laps old when Danica Patrick radioed, "Painful, really ... painful out here."
It was painful to watch, as well.
Twenty-one laps into the 125-lap event, Patrick was a lap down. About a dozen laps later, after pitting under green for major adjustments to her Hot Wheels Chevrolet, which was so loose she was afraid of wrecking, the IndyCar star was three down. At one point she told crew chief Tony Eury Jr. that if he had a suggestion, "I'm happy to try it."
Painful, really painful.
Just as she did at California, a 2-mile track similar to MIS, Patrick struggled from the outset. The most positive thing you can say about her sixth race of this part-time schedule is she finished -- 27th, four laps down.
"I'm really disappointed," said Patrick, whose average finish is 30.5. "I really wanted to do well in the Hot Wheels car. It's a bummer we didn't finish higher."
The circus around Patrick is getting smaller. The horde of reporters that followed her every move around the garage before her debut at Daytona International Speedway has dwindled to a handful. Television cameras don't stay focused on her nearly as long during the race, and gone are the lap-by-lap updates.
Expectations are shrinking, as well.
That doesn't mean the IndyCar Series star doesn't hope for a top-20 -- even a top-10 -- but she's realistic enough to know that on days like Saturday crossing the finish line in one piece may be progress.
"I was hoping I didn't crash," Patrick said of the first half of the race. "I was loose getting in, loose getting off. Nothing I did was helping it. It was painful because I was having to tiptoe like I was on eggshells."
Patrick understands after days like this that she's not close to a decision on whether her future is in stock cars or open-wheel cars once her contract with Andretti Green Racing ends after the 2011 season.
"I just found out there was two truck arms, not just one," Patrick said on Friday of the Nationwide car. "It's so over my head right now."
Patrick may never get it. She may decide sometime next year that this was all a big mistake.
Or maybe the light bulb will come on and everything will start to click.
But it's way too early to judge her or for her to judge the sport. It's way too early for her to judge anything.
Asked how the next-generation Nationwide car felt compared to the old one, Patrick couldn't begin to answer. She hadn't been in the old car enough to get a great feel for it, and this was her first race in the new car.
"I honestly can't tell the difference," she said after a full day of testing on Thursday. "Maybe if I'd been here in the old Nationwide car I'd be able to tell more, but I can't."
Patrick can't even tell if NASCAR drivers need an association as she and IndyCar drivers decided in that series after meeting at Mid-Ohio last week.
"I definitely don't have enough experience over here to know whether you need one or not," Patrick said. "I definitely don't want to say anything about this side of things until I have much more time under my belt."
Time is Patrick's best friend right now. As her spotter repeatedly said, "No pressure, no pressure."
Meanwhile, it's painful, really painful.