On March 6, 2005, Danica Patrick made her IZOD IndyCar Series debut driving for three-time IndyCar Series champion Bobby Rahal in a 300-mile event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Slightly less than seven years later, Patrick will make her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut 296 miles to the north of Homestead when she takes part in the 54th Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
And once again, a three-time series champion – this time Tony Stewart, who captured Sprint Cup titles in 2002, 2005 and 2011 – will mentor Patrick as she adjusts to a full-time, stock-car racing schedule. Patrick is slated to compete in 10 Sprint Cup races in the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet while also participating in a full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The road to Daytona from Homestead wasn’t simply a drive up I-95 on the east side of Florida but rather an incredible journey for Patrick, who has become widely known simply by her first name.
Since that sunny day in March 2005, the Go Daddy Girl has set numerous records and twice appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, making her just the fourth racecar driver (Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., and Al Unser being the others) to grace the cover of the famous magazine two times.
In April 2008, Patrick became the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American series with her win in the IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300 at the Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan. Six times, she finished in the top-10 in points in the IndyCar standings, including a fifth-place result in 2009 – the best ever by a woman.
But nowhere did Patrick perform better than on the biggest IndyCar Series stage of all – the Indianapolis 500. She burst onto the scene at Indy in May 2005 when she stunned the world by leading three times for 19 laps and finishing fourth in her first “500” – becoming the first woman to lead laps and score a top-five finish in the historic race.
She set numerous records during her Indianapolis 500 debut and set the tone early when she posted the fastest lap on the opening day of practice. She went on to set the fastest practice lap five times throughout the month – more than any other driver – including Pole Day and Carburetion Day.
Patrick’s practice lap of 229.880 mph on Pole Day was the fastest of any driver during the month and the fastest turned by any woman in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During her qualification attempt, Patrick made an impressive save as her car bobbled in turn one on her first lap, earning her rave reviews for her car control by longtime Speedway observers. She ended up qualifying fourth, the best-ever starting position for a woman in the race.
On race day, with 11 laps remaining in the 200-lap event, Patrick blew past leader Dan Wheldon and held the point until lap 194, when she was forced to slow down in order to conserve fuel to make it to the finish. Her efforts earned her Rookie of the Year honors.
Patrick scored six top-10 finishes in seven starts at Indianapolis and qualified 10th or better five times. Her third-place result in 2009 is the best finish ever for a woman in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
As the scene switches this month to the historic Daytona 500, it’s easy to notice numerous similarities to the Indy 500. Both are conducted on 2.5-mile ovals, both are 200 laps and both are 500 miles in length. Both events have more lead-up on the racetrack than any other race (Indianapolis is two weeks in duration, Daytona is 10 days) and a victory in either race can change a career.
There are differences, as well, and none bigger than the style of racing. Speeds at Indianapolis approach 220 mph in open-wheel, open-cockpit, rear-engine racecars that weigh about 1,600 pounds. Speeds at Daytona are in the 190-mph range in cars that weigh 3,400 pounds and look more like the standard street car with an enclosed driver compartment and the engine situated in front.
During the Indianapolis 500, cars tend to spread out a bit more with the majority of the passing taking place at the end of the 5/8-mile front and back straightaways. At Daytona over the years, it’s typical to see either one, long pack of cars circling the oval (restrictor-plate-style “pack” racing) or, in recent years since the repave of the facility in 2010, a two-car “tandem draft,” in which pairs of cars align themselves in a draft to make headway toward the front of the field together.
Whichever style of racing will be most prevalent at Daytona this year, it will be different than what Patrick was used to at Indianapolis. However, she has plenty of drafting experience, having competed in one Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) race and three NASCAR Nationwide Series events at Daytona. Both series are feeder systems to the premier Sprint Cup Series.
In her most recent outing at Daytona in July 2011, Patrick worked with Stewart in a two-car draft during the Nationwide Series race and led 13 of 100 laps en route to an impressive 10th-place finish.
While the focus at Daytona this month will be to gain experience and continue her stock-car education, Patrick and the Go Daddy team are still focused on winning. And, why not, when one considers that Trevor Bayne, making just his second Sprint Cup Series start and his first at Daytona, shocked the racing world by winning last year’s Daytona 500?
It’s been an incredible journey for Patrick since March 2005 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and she’s hoping another exciting chapter in her career begins not too far up the road at Daytona.
DANICA PATRICK, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet:
What are your overall thoughts heading to Daytona?
“Well, with Daytona, it’s a big track. It’s an easy track to drive. If you have a fast car, you’re going to probably go to the front. I think my inexperience is less of an issue because the car is easy to drive. For me, at a place like Daytona, it reminds me of racing Indy cars. It reminds me of our mile-and-a-half racing, where we’d always be in a pack. There was no bump drafting in IndyCar. That took some getting used to a little bit.”
What are your thoughts on the length of the races in NASCAR compared to IndyCar?
“It is a bit of an adjustment getting used to the length of the races. Not so much the distance as it is the amount of hours that you’re in the car. When I heard the old stories of people who had snacks in the racecars, I thought it was a joke. But I don’t think it’s a joke, anymore. I really think there are snacks in the car. So maybe it will be that. Maybe it’s making sure I have the right drink in my drink bottle so it keeps me sharp. Whether it’s carbohydrates or proteins, I’ll leave that up to my trainer to figure that out. Also, focusing on hydration and rest, and making sure that, nutritionally, I’m putting the right thing into my body. As far as working out, I have a feeling the number of races will provide workouts of their own. But I’ll keep working out like I normally do.”
Can you talk about your long relationship with Go Daddy?
“I was thinking about this the other day. It’s really perfect because I am a girl so, therefore, I am a Go Daddy Girl. I enjoy getting made up, and I enjoy being feminine and girly. But then, I also enjoy being in the racecar and being tough. So I think it’s that blend of the two – Jillian (Michaels, fellow Go Daddy Girl) said it so well – that strong women can be sexy and soft and beautiful. She said that really well. It’s fun to do that. I think something people don’t know about me is how much I like being a girl when I’m outside of the racecar, and how much I like getting made up and doing photo shoots and things like that. They’re really the perfect sponsor. We have a lot of fun. We poke fun at not only ourselves, but everything, and we try to make people laugh a little.”
In IndyCar racing you never competed in more than 17 races in a season and, in 2010, you competed in 32 races between IndyCar, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR K&N Pro Series and ARCA. This year, you’re scheduled to compete in 43 races with 33 in Nationwide and 10 in Sprint Cup. Can you talk about the number of races you’ll participate in?
“Well the schedule itself was a little intimidating to me back in my early IndyCar days. I didn’t know how anybody did that many races in a year. But, as time went on, and I adjusted to the schedule of being a professional racecar driver and balancing all the other things that go with it and then introducing a dozen or so NASCAR races to my IndyCar season, all of a sudden, that took me to 30 race weekends. It’s not necessarily the amount of racing that happens in the weekend that’s so overwhelming, it’s the travel. It’s the weekends. It’s the time that you take away from home. So, going from 30 to 34, 35-ish race weekends are not that big of an adjustment. While there will be a lot more racing with 43 events or 43 races, it’s not 43 weekends, so I’m comfortable. I’m ready for it. At the end of the day, when you’re having fun with something, you want to do it. So I’m ready.”
Can you talk about Tony Stewart since you both have experience in IndyCar racing?
“We don’t talk a lot about IndyCar and NASCAR. They’re very different worlds. I think it’s nice that I know he has the reference and can understand where I’m coming from, perhaps, with some feelings and certain ways I describe the car. But we don’t speak specifically about Indy cars because of the difference in cars. So, for me, it’s nice to have a guy like Tony who is confident and will help me and give me answers and be honest and want to see me get better. And the IndyCar references are just nice from a background standpoint that he understands what I’m talking about.”
It seems as though you have set high expectations for yourself at Daytona. Talk about that.
“It is very high, but I’m kind of curious what you would say about what other people’s expectations are for Daytona because I think everyone feels they have a shot to win. As long as their car is relatively fast and there’s going to be a little bit of a difference with maybe not doing quite as much tandem running throughout the race, I’ll be curious to see how that goes. It’s so much faster when you run with somebody, so we’ll see how that plays out in the rules that NASCAR put on us to try to make that not happen. But I would imagine you get that from a lot of drivers – that there is that chance. It’s like my first time going to the Indy 500 at Indianapolis. I knew I had a fast car. When I got asked how I felt when I was in the lead at the end of the race, I said I felt like that’s where I should be all day. So here I am going to the biggest race in a year in a new series just like I was in IndyCar, and I have those expectations. Now, the rest of the season is going to have very different expectation levels. But Daytona is very unique, and there is a real chance for some great results there.”
What are your overall thoughts on the season ahead of you?
“Generally, I’m just really ready. I’m excited about the season. I’m excited about the racing. I’m a little bit nervous, too, because I want to do well. Any time you feel like you want to do well, whether it’s on the track or doing your job, you get a little nervous because you feel a little pressure to want to do it. But I’m very happy with where I am. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity I do with two fantastic teams. That’s all you can ask for as a driver – to have good racecars and good crew chiefs.”
You announced last month that you will not compete in the Indianapolis 500 and, instead, compete in the Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. Talk about that.
“I’m sure it will be a little strange. I’m sure I’ll be paying attention – I love Indy. I’m confident it will work out in the future. But I loved the three weeks of Indy, so when they cut it down to two weeks, I was disappointed. I tried to talk everyone into going back to three weeks again. But I have a feeling my plate’s going to be full, and I’ll be well-distracted with lots of NASCAR racing and flying all over the country during May and ending up in Charlotte for Memorial Day weekend. I’m excited to see how NASCAR does Memorial Day weekend. I know how it’s done in IndyCar, and how to honor the day and what it really means about people serving our country. So I’m excited to see how NASCAR does it.”
In IndyCar racing, the biggest race of the season, the Indianapolis 500, is usually the fourth or fifth race of the season. In NASCAR, the Daytona 500, the biggest race of the season, kicks off the season. Talk about that.
“I suppose I thought it was interesting the biggest race of the season is at the very beginning for NASCAR. But being involved in that and seeing what that does, at the end of the day, our sport is about sponsors and sponsors come when people watch. So, when you have the biggest race at the beginning of the year, they start watching. And, with NASCAR, you race every weekend after that and they continue to watch. I think it’s quite smart to start out the season with such media coverage, and it starts to develop storylines, and people can start to follow it because there’s a long season ahead.”
You are scheduled to compete in 10 Sprint Cup races and nine of them have been announced. Would you consider competing in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis?
“Somebody even mentioned something about the All‑Star Race (at Charlotte). I was like ‘I don’t think I’m an All‑Star.’ They’re like, ‘Well, there’s a fan vote.’ We haven’t really thought about it. We haven’t put ideas down. But, mentioning the Brickyard, that is a great idea. That might be a great place to add the 10th race. I know the IndyCar fans – there are a lot of them there, of course. It would be great to go there and do the big NASCAR race and be around. I love that track. It’s my favorite track. So that’s a great idea. I’ll talk to them about that.”
A lot of the attention has been on your relationship with Tony Stewart. Can you talk about working with Ryan Newman?
“For me, with Ryan, he’s been really kind to me over the years – especially the last couple of years in NASCAR. He’s commented a couple of times to me. Stopped and chatted about doing a good job out there and how’s it going. General curiosity. So, I get along great with Ryan. We were actually just talking about some charity stuff, too, with dogs. I know he does a lot with animals. I share the same views as Krissie (Newman), apparently. So I think I’ll probably sit down and talk with her about that. But I really like him. I think the team as a whole is going to have a lot of fun.”
Are you prepared for the difference in competition between the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series?
“I’ll learn that. That’s part of the process of what I’ve dealt with in Nationwide – getting familiar with what’s acceptable on the track. I can put my car into someone’s rear bumper as easily as they can put it into mine. It’s about learning what that line is, though. So I’ll always start from a respectful position of taking my time. I’m not going to go out there and get into everybody or any of that. It’s about learning what the limit is on what’s acceptable. Also, then, getting comfortable with the car and getting faster. I’m sure you mean a little bit of the driving aggressively and also the speed. I’m sure everybody amps up their game for the big day. So, for me, it’s going to come through experience and practice and figuring it out.”