Danica feeling like she belongs now

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The circus of media and fans that followed Danica Patrick around her first test at Daytona International Speedway in a stock car three years ago has disappeared.

So has the confusion the former IndyCar star had as she struggled with little things, such as how to tuck her hair into the back of her firesuit and climb in the car, during that ARCA test in December 2009.

Patrick's first laps in a Sprint Cup car Thursday, aside from missing the entrance to the garage from pit road, felt natural to her and looked natural to those who have followed her two-year progression through the Nationwide Series.

"You wouldn't have known it was her driving. You would have thought it was Tony [Stewart] or Joey [Logano]," said Greg Zipadelli, referring to the past two drivers he worked with at Joe Gibbs Racing before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing this season as competition director and Patrick's interim crew chief.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will field Patrick full time in the Nationwide Series ride after two part-time seasons, wasn't even aware initially that Patrick was in the No. 10 SHR car she will drive in Cup races.

"I didn't even remember she was supposed to be here," he said. "She's been relatively quiet, and that's probably good for her to be able to come in here and work and … concentrate on driving and on her new team and everybody."

It was anything but quiet when Patrick arrived in 2009. She had so many photographers, reporters and fans around her that Earnhardt was able to walk through the garage practically unnoticed.

When you can steal the spotlight from NASCAR's most popular driver, it speaks volumes for Patrick's star power and why the governing body wants so desperately for her to succeed.

But on this day, other than a loud cheer from a group of fans as she entered the media center, it was business as usual.

"It did feel a little more comfortable, yeah," Patrick said when recalling her 2009 debut.

Comfortable is what this season will be all about for Patrick as far as the Cup series goes. She wants to take things slowly and make sure she's ready for a full-time ride in 2013 just as she did in the Nationwide Series when she began the transition from open-wheel cars.

Opting to begin this journey at Daytona won't help her when it comes to non-restrictor-plate tracks, where handling and talent become greater factors, but it should give her confidence moving forward. In two Nationwide starts at Daytona International Speedway last year, she finished a respectable 14th and 10th.

"I'm really kind of glad that the first time that I'm in a Cup car is here at Daytona, where I can get the fit right and get all the little things right so that when we go to a track that's a little more challenging from a driver's perspective, that stuff is all good to go, and there's no concern or no distraction with those things," she said.

Patrick showed her comfort with Daytona immediately Thursday, posting the eighth-fastest lap during the single-car morning runs. She was faster than both of her bosses; Stewart was 12th and Earnhardt 11th.

"There's a lot of things that are unknown, especially with running the full-time Nationwide championship, wanting to do really well in that and wanting to make a good impression in the Cup races I'm doing," Patrick said. "But overall, I'm feeling comfortable, as comfortable as I could imagine myself in this situation."

You can hear a confidence in Patrick's voice that wasn't there three years ago. It's so strong that she has adopted the attitude of the honey badger that she fell in love with after seeing a YouTube video on the animal native to Africa and the Middle East.

"The honey badger, he doesn't give a crap; he takes what he wants," Patrick said. "And that's how I'm going to be this year, like a honey badger. … He eats poisonous snakes, and he falls asleep and wakes right back up.

"I don't know. It's a mindset. I even have a honey badger picture on my screensaver on my phone to inspire me."

Patrick will have to learn to give and take to succeed in NASCAR's top series. As we've seen with other drivers that take and don't give, it typically doesn't work out well.

But the key is Patrick now has an attitude in a stock car. She's learned in two short Nationwide seasons that not letting people run you over is as important as not running over people.

She's also learned about respect.

That's one of the reasons she and Zipadelli hit it off immediately. She appreciated not being made to feel like a rookie when she arrived Thursday and asked for adjustments to her seat belt and throttle because they didn't feel comfortable.

"He doesn't look at me like I'm inexperienced and I should be comfortable right away," Patrick said. "He investigates and says, 'No problem. Let's get it right,' and makes me feel comfortable with that kind of stuff."

Patrick repeatedly used the word comfortable. Three years ago, her catchphrase was confused.

It's a sign she's done all the right things to prepare for this next step, that she's ready.

"She seemed very determined and very focused on what she needs to do," Zipadelli said.

Before anybody pencils Patrick in as this year's surprise winner of the Daytona 500, remember Thursday was, as Zipadelli reminded, "the easiest day of the season, the easiest place to test."

It'll be a lot different when Patrick gets to Bristol and Darlington, where it'll take more than driving wide open and turning left. It'll be a lot different Friday when she begins learning the ins and outs of the two-car draft.

"But this is good," Zipadelli said. "It's allowing us to go through our changes really slow, talk to her and try to communicate to open that up, so when we get back here she's ready for the fireworks for seven days."

Maybe by then the circus will return. Maybe when the focus is off how to stop the two-car tandem that doesn't appear ready to go away, Patrick will own the spotlight she gets everywhere she goes.

Maybe she will be like the honey badger and take something nobody expects.

"I don't just want to be here," Patrick said. "I want to run well. At a place like Daytona, there's that opportunity. I'll probably have slightly more realistic expectations for some of the other ones, but for this one at Daytona, there's a real opportunity."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.