Experience trumps success this time

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- That laser look of hers, that glint of instant understanding, came right at me through the media bedlam around her wrecked race car in the garage.

"That's a good point, Ed," Danica Patrick said when I suggested this was really for the best, this no-decision in her NASCAR debut. This would keep expectations from spiraling out of control the way they had in 2005 at the outset of her IndyCar career.

She got invaluable experience Saturday, first in a car that was fitful and then in one her pit crew vastly improved, and she began to move up through the pack, hinting at another crowd-wowing performance to build on that of last Saturday night's ARCA race.

But then she got her first real welcome to NASCAR, getting taken out in her first multicar crash (12 cars in all) when she found herself with nowhere to go.

This was something of a reprieve, she knew.

"I remember my first year in IndyCar," she said, "where in the first couple of races I do really well, and everybody's like, 'Oh, my gosh, you should be winning!' And then it took a couple of years."

They were agonizing years, with the steadily rising tide of "can she really win" questions until, when she finally did win in 2008, she wept more with relief than joy.

Had she gone on up through the field and finished strong Saturday, continued taking to NASCAR like a natural, then Danicamania II might have become a storm surge to obscure the mere groundswell of the original Danicamania of '05.

"So it's important to have realistic expectations," she said. "There's going to be spikes in performance, I don't doubt that. But there's also going to be tough days. And today was, I would say, more a tough day."

She needed to get one of those out of the way early. The public and media needed it too.

Plus, "she got a chance to feel a bad car, and that probably was more valuable to her than anything," said eventual race winner Tony Stewart, who has been a major mentor in her transition from open wheel to stock cars.

"I wish I would have run up there at the beginning and felt comfortable," she said, "but I just didn't. And that just proves how hard it is out here, and how much there is to learn, and how good all these drivers really are."

Perhaps even more than drafting and fender-rubbing, she has soaked up the savvy of NASCAR fandom and protocol. She has shown great respect for the drivers, and they have reciprocated due to her workmanlike humility among them.

And she is already clearly a draw, both in TV ratings and in the grandstands. Saturday's crowd wasn't as good as in better economic times, but it was better than last year -- the grandstands were perhaps 60-70 percent capacity -- and Danica had been the attraction to many of them.

She didn't get a chance to wow them, but that's OK. She's getting a foothold, getting a grip, instead of the meteor ride of '05.

Stewart had said Friday of the expectations piling up on her after the ARCA race, "Everybody should expect to let her learn. There's a lot of focus on her, and pressure. She's done a great job dealing with that …"

(Indeed, when she climbed out of her wrecked car in the garage, she gazed at the throng of media awaiting her across the lane for the last interviews of her Daytona debut, and cracked to a NASCAR publicist, "Man, I was just getting used to that" -- as if she will miss it.)

"Everybody's got to remember she's a rookie," Stewart had said Friday. "Everything she does is not like she didn't meet a goal or she exceeded a goal.

"This is a learning experience this week. If everybody treats it that, then everything will be fine," Stewart concluded.

So I asked Stewart after he won whether this seals the week as a mass-perceived learning experience for Danica.

"I don't know if that does it today or not," he said.

Well, I think it does -- and that's because I was one of the guiltiest journalists of sending expectations soaring out of her control after her first Indy 500, which she nearly won before finishing fourth, highest ever there by a woman.

For her very next IndyCar race that year, a thundering herd of media followed her to Texas Motor Speedway, where she had a terrible night with a badly handling car.

I questioned her about her drive that night, probably in a critical tone, until she gave me the first of those laser looks of hers and said, "I am what you write that I am."

No meteor this time, I say.

Much better than that. A hard worker, a quick learner. This methodical climb at least gives her a foothold that assures she'll do better in NASCAR, in the long run, than she has in IndyCar.

This is all for the best. She agrees.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.