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Racing against reality, Patrick sounds less certain

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – She wants to be more than a pretty face, more than the NASCAR equivalent of tennis sweetheart Anna Kournikova.

But Danica Patrick will need to win a race in NASCAR first, and that has proven to be quite a struggle.

Patrick, 28, will start fourth in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday at Daytona – her 13th career start in NASCAR’s second-tier series.

In her 12 previous starts, all in 2010, Patrick never finished better than 19th. Her average finish was 28.7, which means she’s generally running in the back of the field, with a much better chance of getting lapped than of winning.

Patrick still sounds unsure of herself in this type of racing to me. She’s been much better in her IndyCar Series career.

Here’s a sampling of what Patrick has said about herself during this trip to Daytona regarding her prospects and her disappointing 2010 NASCAR season:

“It’s important to keep my attitude up. It’s pretty frustrating when you finish 20th.”

And: “I want people to be entertained. I want them to believe in me as a driver. It’s a big part of my job. If people don’t believe I’m good and care about me, then I have less of a job.”

And: “Once [last year] came, reality set in and it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I started letting the results get to me a lot.”

To me, the most telling of those comments were three little words: “Reality set in.”

That’s where Patrick finds herself now. The closest she gets to reality is when she climbs into a stock car. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots don’t help her there. Neither does the GoDaddy.com sponsorship or the new (and pretty funny) Nationwide commercial she shot with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that debuts Saturday.

Each of of her appearances in Daytona this year has drawn stares, but not as many as during her stock-car debut last year. Fans are gradually getting over the oddity of seeing a pretty woman drive a race car.

Now Patrick needs to win something in NASCAR. That’s the bottom line. Or, at least, she needs to get a few top-five finishes to earn some more respect.

But is she capable of doing that? She looked like she was in her stock-car debut a year ago, when she finished sixth in an ARCA race at Daytona.

That turned out to be about as good as it was going to get for Patrick. Running part time in NASCAR and full time in IndyCar in 2010 (as she will this season), she didn’t do that well in either one.

But while she has finished third in the Indianapolis 500 and has won once in IndyCar, she has had no similar success in NASCAR.

Her contracts in both racing series run out at the end of 2011, which means Patrick will be a high-profile free agent with decisions to make. Some sponsors and race teams will still want her, but it seems to me that her flirtation with NASCAR may come to an end unless she does something big this season.

Although NASCAR is a higher-profile form of racing, driving the heavier cars so far has not been Patrick’s forte.

She seems to know this, almost readying herself for another disappointment Saturday. On Thursday, she said in a group interview: “While I have hopes and aspirations of catching a good break and winning Saturday that doesn’t mean that’s going to be a make-or-break sort of thing for me.”

Earlier this week, she said: “It’s OK if I don’t set the world on fire every weekend.”

That sounds to me like someone who doesn’t think she has much chance of winning.

Maybe Patrick is snowing us all and is about to win Saturday, but I doubt it. I think she just doesn’t know if she’s ever quite going to get the hang of stock car racing.

When asked whether her future would be in NASCAR after her contracts run out at the end of 2011, Patrick said: “That’s a tough question. There are a lot of things dependent on my future and what I do and where I go.

"It depends on what I want to do, it depends on sponsorship, depends on all those things. I have a lot of time to think about it. ... Just see what opportunities arise.

"I think it will become obvious in the end.”

I think it will be, too. I think Patrick will end up back in the IndyCar Series after this season, her dalliance with NASCAR done.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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