After her sixth-place finish in last weekend's ARCA Racing Series outing at Daytona Beach – and the way in which she accomplished it – no longer should we ask, 'What is Danica Patrick doing in a stock car?' but rather more appropriate might be: 'Why is Patrick wasting her time in the IndyCar Series?'
Admittedly, it's one race. Admittedly, she was driving one of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s old Sprint Cup cars. Admittedly, she had one of NASCAR's most wily crew chiefs in her corner, namely former Earnhardt pit boss Tony Eury Jr.
Don't forget, however, that Patrick rallied to finish sixth without the benefit of any significant practice time in the draft, a critical deficiency when it comes to restrictor-plate racing. Yes, she practised drafting during an ARCA test in December, but that was with a maximum of five or six cars, not a full field of 43.
Thursday's ARCA practice at Daytona was limited to single-car runs in preparation for Friday morning's qualifying session. Friday afternoon's practice was rained out. As a consequence, the fast lady from Wisconsin started Saturday's race with little or no idea of how her No.7 Chevrolet would behave in dirty air, surrounded by rivals trying to make names for themselves on the biggest stage ARCA has ever occupied.
And don't forget that Patrick went about her business as the focus of a maelstrom of attention that bordered on the manic. Under the circumstances, the diminutive driver weathered the storm with consummate grace.
“Once there's 20 interviews, what's the difference if there's 30?” she asked on Friday afternoon. “I have a lot of people helping me, making sure that I am where I need to be and that I have time to drive the car and do what I need to do there. I've had plenty of time to chill out in the truck and watch TV with the guys.”
Patrick's viewing included video of the 2009 ARCA race at Daytona, and she proved a quick study. By her own admission, she was 'hanging out' in the early stages of Saturday's 80-lap Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200, but the real test came when she faced major adversity for the first time in a stock car.
On lap 54, Patrick was hugging the yellow line as she exited Turn 4 when fellow rookie Nelson Piquet Jr. pinched her towards the apron. Already conversant with the no-passing-below-the-yellow-line rule, Patrick held her position, and a bump from Piquet sent her sliding across the infield grass and spinning back up onto the asphalt – all without making contact with the outside retaining wall.
Forced to the pits to repair minor damage and change tyres, Patrick re-started 24th on lap 57, but another quick caution kept her at the back until a subsequent re-start on lap 64. The Beloit native was at that point 23rd, but she went on to charge fearlessly through the field to run as high as fifth before the finish, getting the most out of a powerful car.