DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick’s day began with the unveiling of a Hot Wheels car she designed and the revelation that as a child she played with Barbie dolls. (Another Mattel product. Well-played, Ms. Patrick).
It ended with a sixth-place finish in the ARCA season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
In between, she gave a little fender, got a little fender, learned the treachery of the draft, took a slide through the grass and avoided the numerous wrecks that yearly make the ARCA opener so cringe-worthy. A pretty full day.
In a field that included the greatest moto-crosser of all time, a former Formula One driver and several other women, Patrick did well enough to impress the dismissive.
Now she – and the deciders – will ruminate on whether she wants to make her Nationwide Series debut next Saturday at Daytona or wait until Feb. 20 at Fontana, Calif.
An announcement will be made on Monday.
Bobby Gerhart won the race, followed by Mark Thompson and John Wes Townley.
But even they had to know this race wasn’t about them.
“Be proud of yourself, girl. You learned a lot there at the end,” crew chief Tony Eury Jr. told Patrick after the race.
This one was about Patrick’s stock car indoctrination on a restrictor-plate track.
She was running 14th on Lap 53 of 80 after being dumped in the draft and complaining of a loose car when she was brushed in the tri-oval by Formula One refugee Nelson Piquet Jr.
That would be same Nelson Piquet Jr. (the son of a former world champion) who was shamed out of the world's biggest racing series by a scandalous wreck, supposedly on team orders.
Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet slid sideways through the grass, but with Eury Jr. yelling “stay on it” on her radio, she recovered and avoided the wall. A series of repair pit stops dumped her to 24th. But Patrick had unwittingly earned the first credibility moment.
And it was better than running inside the top six just a few laps earlier.
Patrick worked her way back to fifth with five laps left and clicking off positions when she made another dash for the front. But she settled for sixth.
“I was thinking ‘We’re not out of this, right?, ' "’ Patrick said, “ ’Why should we be out of it?’.
"I was pretty excited to go from last to the top five again.”
Eury Jr. had spent much of his Saturday refreshing Patrick on the most basic aspects of racing at Daytona. And she soon became practiced at missing accidents.
She suffered some sheet-metal damage in a bump entering pit road, but delighted herself and Eury Jr. by bump-drafting through the tri-oval.
“My girl is getting up on it,” Eury Jr. told Patrick under a caution.
Patrick’s mother, Bev, wiled away the last few minutes in the garage before driver introductions outside. She was soaking in her new experience as much as her ultrafamous daughter.
While missing the hospitality tents of the IndyCar Series, she was interested in finding out how her daughter’s new adventure turned out.
“I think people don’t give her credit for the businessperson that she is,” Patrick's mother said.
“I think she sees what the future can be here and there, and she likes the opportunities this could bring her. So she’s a smart gal.
"I think she’s wise to dabble in it. She’s getting a perfect opportunity to do it this way, staying in the IndyCar for a full season and playing here.”
“In my mind, all she has to do is be competitive,” said retired Sprint Cup driver Kyle Petty, who launched his career with ultimately unrealized expectations in winning the 1979 ARCA race at Daytona.
“We project our expectations on (Dale Earnhardt) Jr. and now we’re going to project that on Danica. Don’t look for her to come in and save the sport.”
She won’t save the ARCA series, but for a day her white-hot spotlight at least shined on the grass-roots series a bit.
A special Patrick observation area was constructed of linkable gate segments throughout the week and fans jammed inside the garage on Saturday morning even as Sprint Cup qualifying began.
Tweets from Patrick’s Twitter account stoked the excitement of the curious with pictures over her fire suit hanging in wait.
The excitement occasionally misfired. When, for instance, four teen-aged girls behind a chain-link fence yelled 'Danica! Danica! Danica!' at Milka Duno. That would be the Venezuelan media star/driver who had a pit road spat at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2008.