Commentary

Danica Patrick's Cup debut on hold

Updated: February 27, 2012, 10:39 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin stood by his No. 11 car early Sunday afternoon as rain pelted Daytona International Speedway during driver introductions for the Daytona 500.

Alone.

A few feet away on pit road, Danica Patrick was surrounded by half a dozen television crews, half a dozen photographers, a mass of wannabe photographers doubling as fans with cellphones and business partners.

Every few minutes, Hamlin glanced over as the crowd grew around the GoDaddy.com car in front of his. Did it bother him that a driver who'd never run a Sprint Cup race was getting so much attention and an accomplished driver like himself wasn't?

[+] EnlargePatrick
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick visited with her Sprint Cup boss, Tony Stewart, before the Daytona 500 was postponed to Monday.

"I don't really care," Hamlin said.

But as the rain increased and Hamlin headed for cover, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver jokingly said, "Her hair is getting wet."

Maybe he does care.

Clint Bowyer, under an umbrella across from Patrick's entourage, might as well have been on an island.

"You've probably never felt so alone," said a friend who joined him under the umbrella to stay dry.

You get the picture.

The Cup series, for the majority of Speedweeks, has been Danica and the boys. Most drivers will tell you she's good for the sport, that she brings them attention from people and places they normally might not get.

Joe Nemechek took time to take his daughters, 7-year-old Kennedy and 12-year-old Blair, by Patrick's car before the heavens opened completely because "they think it's a cool thing having a girl over here racing with their dad."

"When they hear that GoDaddy.com commercial they know who it is," he said.

But not all drivers are as thrilled with being overlooked. They won't say it for public consumption, knowing NASCAR doesn't look kindly on saying things that are detrimental to the sport.

Just ask Brad Keselowski, who was fined $25,000 last season for criticizing NASCAR's entry into the world of electronic fuel injection.

But as Keselowski made his way down pit road and saw me following Patrick's every move, he laughed and said, "I thought more of you, man."

And Keselowski is a big supporter of what Patrick can do for the sport.

Pole-sitter Carl Edwards said it's "obviously unique the amount of attention she gets." But Edwards believes there is a lot more support for Patrick than resentment.

"I haven't really sensed that at all," Edwards said. "She's a race car driver trying to make it in our sport and trying to do well. She seems to really genuinely want to do well and work hard."

Patrick isn't any more concerned with petty jealousies here than she was in the IndyCar Series, where some resented the attention she got. She's totally focused on performing in her Cup debut and how the postponement of the Daytona 500 until Monday will impact that.

She's admittedly nervous.

"I didn't sleep through the night," Patrick said early in the day on a television interview. "The night before there was jackhammers going on and last night there was the nerves going on. I kind of just feel like we have been here for a week and a half. I'm just ready.

I'm nervous, to be honest. There is a lot on the line. I really want to have a good day. And you know, the nerves sometimes are out of your control.

-- Danica Patrick

"I'm nervous, to be honest. There is a lot on the line. I really want to have a good day. And you know, the nerves sometimes are out of your control. Then the nerves [are] trying to do everything right, which is hard for me."

Patrick has reason to be nervous. She was involved in a horrific crash into the inside retaining wall on the last lap of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying race.

She was involved in another hard hit on Lap 49 of Saturday's Nationwide Series race when JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt caught her off guard with a hard bump draft.

She's watched what seems to be more 10-plus car crashes between the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series than Daytona has seen in a while.

"What I have learned watching the Truck race, and being in the Nationwide race and watching some of it, is if you can make it to the finish, things can -- it can be a really great result for you," Patrick said. "In the Nationwide race only [six] of the cars didn't crash.

"Keep the GoDaddy car with all four fenders looking mildly round and square and not crushed in. Go from there."

If Patrick does that the respect will grow and whatever jealousies there might be will diminish.

It certainly was fun hearing NASCAR president Mike Helton conclude his segment of the drivers' meeting saying, "Lady and gentlemen, good luck."

Despite nerves, Patrick seemed relaxed for the most part throughout this ugly day. She hung out in her bus during the delay.

"These delays don't mess with me in any way," Patrick said before the race was called. "It probably gives me more time to think, to be honest."

One thing that won't change is the attention.

The crowd around Patrick will be just as big on Monday.

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

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