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Danica Patrick faces big test at Daytona

21 February 2012

There's been no question about who the media is most interested in at Daytona in the last few days: while long time Cup drivers have been able to sit around in the media area without being troubled by a single questioner, Danica Patrick isn't able to go anywhere without being surrounded by a rugby scrum of reporters.

"The week started off with me doing about 2 and a half hours of interviews. That's not a small day," she said. Of course, she's used to that sort of attention thanks to all her years being the centre of attention for the press going into the Indianapolis 500. Patrick described Daytona as a lot easier to drive than Indianapolis: "Indianapolis is something that is a little more difficult," she agreed.

In fact as far as Patrick is concerned, the driving is the easy part of her first stab at the 2012 Daytona Speedweeks: "I pretty much just had to hit my shifts," she said of her practice and qualifying runs over the weekend. "As a driver, you try to go through the gears smooth and be smooth on the track. Beyond that, there isn't a lot more that we can do."

She's been helped by a complicated deal over owner points between Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing that gives her a guaranteed starting grid position for the Daytona 500 which has definitely taken the pressure off her driving, although not not the press attention. "As far as nerves go, it was less nerve wracking, but there was no lack of photographers and cameras."

Being less nerve wracking didn't equate to no nerves at all for the former IndyCar driver, however.

"To say that I wasn't nervous at all is a lie," she admitted. "Of course I was a little bit. I want to do a good job, I want to have a nice pretty smooth line out there and I want to go through the shifts nicely."

But then she hasn't experienced the reality of pack-racing close up in a high-profile Cup race, and that might come as something of a shock to the former open-wheel racer.

"I'm not completely unfamiliar with the pack running," she pointed out. "The first year here was some pack, and even last year in the first race of the year in Nationwide, we did some pack running. It was interesting to watch how you can be very organised in a single file line. You can pull away. It was interesting to see how the tandem will work in the end."

Thursday will be the key moment for her, when she'll compete in the Gatorade Duel that will set her starting position for Sunday's Daytona 500 event. Knowing who she can work with out on the track will be key to her campaign.

"It's going be about getting a rapport with some of the drivers I haven't raced with yet, getting a feel for how the pack running is going to go," she concurred. She's also been studying video of previous races - including Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, in which she did not compete but learned a lot from watching all the same. "I'll be studying that last pass at the end with Tony and Kyle to see when the perfect time is to do that!" she said.

She's also got to turn her attention to the first Nationwide Series race of 2012, the Drive4COPD 300 on Saturday starting at noon (5pm GMT). While she's had limited Nationwide seasons for the past two years, this will be her official rookie year and she needs to perform well in order to keep her planned graduation to Cup racing in 2013 on schedule.

Patrick is by no means a newbie when it comes to racing at Daytona: her stock car debut was here in the ARCA series just two years ago, and she finished in sixth place that time out. In last year's July Nationwide Series outing at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick took a top ten finish between IndyCar events.

But everything past is prologue, and this weekend is when the real story of Danica Patrick's NASCAR career begins. Whether she triumphs or falls flat on her face in her two races this weekend, there's no question that all eyes - and all TV cameras - will be trained on her every move on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.


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