DARLINGTON, S.C. -- When the original Sprint Cup schedule for Danica Patrick was penciled in by Stewart-Haas Racing late last year, the plan was for her much-hyped debut to come at Darlington Raceway, perhaps the toughest race track in NASCAR.
-- DANICA PATRICK
Uh, no thanks.
"Darlington was going to be my first Cup race and I sort of felt like that would be a high pressure situation that I didn't feel I'd be able to be as comfortable with,'' Patrick said before her first practice ever at Darlington on Friday. "And, so, I wanted my first race in a Cup car to be a place where I could worry more about just the drivers and the race itself other than driving the car and putting myself at my limit of capabilities right away."
Patrick got her way. She debuted in the season-opening Daytona 500 instead. But, three months later, Cup race number two is the Bojangles Southern 500 -- at Darlington. And, if first impressions are any indication, it could be a long night for a driver who still has much to learn in her transition from the Indycar Series to NASCAR. Patrick finished dead-last among 47 race teams during her first career Cup practice on Friday, touching the wall several times. Happy Hour saw a significant improvement, though, with Patrick 24th. She qualified 38th for Saturday's race.
"This is a tough place and everything they said about it is true,'' Patrick said between practices. "This Lady in Black is very intimidating. I'm just trying to get comfortable with what the car needs me to do -- where to brake, how heavy to brake and those kinds of things. I've got my Darlington stripes, officially. It's all the way down the right side of the car. We got that one over with.
"I've got everything in my corner, I just need time. I just need to get comfortable. It's definitely not going to be an easy, breezy night. Like Tony (Stewart) said, I'm probably going to hate him by the end of the weekend. Come the future, I'm going to be glad for it."
Stewart knew what he was putting Patrick through when he picked Darlington as one of 10 Sprint Cup races on this year's schedule to prepare her to go full-time in Cup next season. He figures it's better for Patrick to learn the track when she isn't racing for points, as she will be next year.
"She understands the value of why we picked this as one of the races,'' Stewart said. "I think she's keeping the big picture in mind. I think she's doing a really good job of taking it all in stride, not letting her position on the time sheet get her down, realizing that the whole weekend is a learning experience and trying to just get at that time.
"I want her just to run as many laps as possible. The more time she can spend on track, the more experience that she's going to get. So the good thing is, running both divisions, she's getting a ton of track time."
Patrick tried to prepare by testing a Cup car at Nashville a few weeks ago to get used to a non restrictor-plate race car. She studied in-car video of a Darlington race. And she has sought out experienced teammates Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Of course, the best way to learn is by doing. Patrick posted competitive laps in her Nationwide race car; she was 17th in practice and qualified 15th for Friday night's race.
Cup race cars are much different, however.
"When you get to about half-throttle in the Cup car, that's what a Nationwide car feels like,'' Jimmie Johnson said with a laugh. "There's a lot left from that point down in a Cup car. As far as tracks go, this track in my opinion has the highest sensation of speed over any other track we go to. And it's due to it being so narrow. But it will be an eye-opening experience. Fortunately, she's been real fast in other cars so hopefully it doesn't affect her too much. But we've all looked at this race on her schedule and know it's going to be tough for her. And it certainly will. This is not an easy race track to get around, but she's going to do it and we'll see how it goes."
As Greg Biffle said, "The place is just unforgiving and it's difficult. Experience here is worth its weight in gold."
Which Patrick should find out when she comes back here next year. But that isn't going to make this weekend any easier.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I know I'll be better for it,'' Patrick said, "But it's going to be a lot of work this weekend."
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