DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The first time Danica Patrick hit the wall was in her first run during Nationwide Series practice Friday morning, when she clipped it with the right-rear of her No. 7 car. In opening Sprint Cup practice, she hit it again entering Turn 3. Later, she scraped it in almost the same place in almost the same way. With minutes remaining in the session she hit it one more time, this time harder in between Turns 3 and 4, the impact leaving a long, white streak down the right side of her green automobile.
"I got my stripe!" she said at one point over the radio. It would be far from her only encounter with Darlington Raceway's nefarious and ever-present outside wall, that marked-up red and white strip which loomed outside Patrick's passenger-side window during the entirety of the longest and most challenging day of her nascent NASCAR career. Get up to the wall, get up to the wall, get up to the wall, she heard so many times, in so many words. At Darlington it's the fastest way around, a counterintuitive approach for drivers whose goal is typically to stay as far away from it as possible.
Danica's Darlington Friday
7:30 a.m. ET Nationwide rookie meeting 8 a.m. NASCAR hauler meeting 8:30-10:30 a.m. Nationwide practice 10:30 a.m. Sprint Cup rookie meeting 11 a.m. Nationwide driver meeting 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sprint Cup practice 1:45 p.m. Media availability 2:15-3 p.m. Sprint Cup practice 3:35 p.m. Nationwide qualifying 5:10 p.m. Sprint Cup qualifying 7:15 p.m. Nationwide race 9:45 p.m. Checkered flag
At Darlington, though, there's no other choice, You get up there a few feet from the concrete or the SAFER barrier and you ride the thing all the way around, occasionally slapping it, inevitable contact that sometimes means a driver is getting everything out of the car. Getting there, though, requires an on-the-fly education of the type Patrick went through Friday, where she made her debut at this cranky old facility in advance of her second career start in NASCAR's premier series Saturday night. Even when she wasn't on the track, the wall was always there.
"As a driver, my comfort level with the wall is definitely medium," she said. "I don't think even in IndyCars I liked being up against the wall. ... Coming into these stock cars, I'm definitely a lot mre comfortable getting up higher and higher, but here at Darlington, you're riding the wall. You're not kind of using it as a reference, you're riding the wall. It's a whole new level of getting comfortable with it. You're definitely as a driver threading the needle out here, and every driver that's out here deserves definite credit for running well. If they have a good weekend, they're darn good drivers. Because this is definitely tough."
That much is an understatement. Friday for Patrick was an absolute bear, the difficulty of the race track combining with a breakneck schedule stemming from her involvement in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events. She left her motor coach at 7:25 a.m., and for most of the next 14 hours was either in a race car or in a meeting. She attended the Nationwide rookie meeting -- mandatory, since it was her first time at the track -- at 7:30, and that was followed by a powwow with series director Joe Balash and Sam Hornish Jr. stemming from the incident involving the two drivers last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
Then it was two hours of Nationwide practice, then the Sprint Cup rookie meeting, then the Nationwide drivers' meeting, then two hours of Cup practice. The obligations were stacked on top of one another like building blocks -- a media availability, final Sprint Cup practice, qualifying sessions for both circuits. And then finally the Nationwide event, beginning as the sun set over the Turn 3 wall. Of course, the wall. At Darlington, it's always about the wall, particularly for someone who had never competed here before.
"I'm not comfortable. I'm not a wall person," she said over the radio early in Friday's first Sprint Cup practice, which she finished as the slowest of the 47 cars that took to the track. No one was under any illusion that it would be easy. Patrick's debut in NASCAR's major league came in the Daytona 500, on a big restrictor-plate track where drivers mash the accelerator and go. Unrestricted venues are a different animal, as Patrick's team discovered during a recent two-day test in Nashville, Tenn. They made progress during the first day, and then they hit a wall of the figurative variety.
"She said it was an eye-opener. It's tough. These cars are not easy to drive," Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Patrick's Stewart-Haas Racing team, said before the team came to Darlington. "She did a really good job the first day. I don't know where we got off or where we missed it the second day and why we didn't get better or get her comfortable. Darlington's going to be tough. It's going to be tough for all of us. But if this is what she's going to do -- you know, there's growing pains. We'll go in, and hold our heads high, and do the best we can to get her something comfortable, and try to run all day."
There was certainly no lack of effort. Patrick made 62 laps in opening Nationwide practice, second-most only behind another Darlington newcomer, Travis Pastrana. Her inexperience, though, was clear -- over and over again her spotter urged her to get up to the wall sooner, to try and be there before she reached the Bojangles' billboard just prior to the apex of turns 1 and 2. In the Nationwide car, she still managed to post the 17th-best time of the session. In the more powerful Cup car, though, it was a different world.
"There's still a little more room in 1 and 2 to get up to the wall," new spotter Tab Boyd told her. "I know we're working on it. ... There's a lot of room in 1 and 2 that we need to get to the wall a little more. These guys are using every bit of the race track."
The art of letting the car drift up into the corner was something Patrick had not yet mastered. Instead there was tentativeness, understandable given what was waiting up there. "I just feel like I'm going to clip the wall and make it even more black than it is," Patrick said over the radio. Patrick was braking too early entering the corner, and then having to brake again and crank the wheel far enough left to get out of it. The deeper she got into the corner, Boyd explained, the less she'd have to turn the wheel, and the more she could allow her momentum to carry her out the other end. And more momentum meant more speed.
Which early Friday was tough to find. Patrick's best lap in the opening Sprint Cup practice was nearly 10 mph slower than the best lap turned by Kevin Harvick, who led the session. "Obviously, I'm not super-fast," she said during her media availability. "I didn't expect to be very fast. I expected to just get experience out there and would I like to be higher up the chart? Absolutely. Every driver wants to be as high up as possible. There's a lot of really, really good drivers out there throughout the whole field. I'm not coming in thinking I should be anywhere in particular based on my extreme lack of experience and knowledge of this place."
In final Sprint Cup practice, they were at it again. "I hate to sound like a broken record," Boyd told his driver, "but there's still quite a bit of room, of grip up there." Patrick made nine laps, trying to get a little deeper, improving to 24th fastest in a session where teams mixed race and qualifying setups. "I'm chanting, 'Be brave' to myself," Patrick radioed to her team. The progress was slow, but it was there -- she briefly held the provisional pole in Nationwide qualifying before ending up 15th, and later turned a lap in Sprint Cup qualifying that would have gotten her into the field even if her No. 10 car hadn't been locked in.
But the Southern 500 would have to wait. A long Friday of on-track activity for Patrick culminated in the Nationwide race, where she raced the track as she had been instructed. And when she did manage to get as high in the corner as she needed to, her team let her know it. "That's what I'm looking for, right there," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. told her midway through the event. "I pushed just a little more there," Patrick responded. Team owner Tony Stewart spoke over the radio occasionally to offer advice. Even after she fell a lap down, the feedback over the radio was all positive. Her stated goal, after all, was only a respectable finish.
And she achieved it, getting her lap back by staying out of the pits, gaining some track position when some of the leaders crashed near the finish, and coming home 12th. "Sorry I couldn't get a top-10 there," she told her team over the radio afterward. Given where she had started, though, the result was something of a victory in and of itself. Perhaps more telling -- after the race, there was hardly a scratch on the right side of Patrick's No. 7 car. A pair of nicks in the paint of the rear quarterpanel comprised the only damage.
"Very, very positive," Eury called it. "I'm very happy. We were kind of expecting the worst here, but she surprised us all and stepped up to the plate and did a good job." Getting up against the wall, though, remains a work in progress. Eury said Patrick noticed the line contenders Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch were running in the Nationwide event, and will try to build up to it in Saturday's Sprint Cup race -- which the crew chief urges her to use solely as a learning experience.
"She was kind of down after practice, and I told her, you've got to understand that's another level above where we're at. Over there, I told her, there were 42 Kyle Busches," Eury said. "So every one of them run hard every lap, and every one of them are good, and they're there for a reason. She's putting herself up against the best. ... I just told her, don't let your confidence get down. Stay positive. Go out there and learn, watch. She's going to learn a lot just by racing with guys who are that smart and that good."
And with that, Danica Patrick's wall-to-wall course in Darlington 101 was over. The final exam looms Saturday under the lights.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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