Time for Danica Patrick to prove herself | NevadaAppeal.com

Time for Danica Patrick to prove herself

Roger Diez
For the Nevada Appeal

Today, weather permitting, we’ll see how Danica Patrick fares when she “kicks it up a notch,” to borrow a phrase from Emeril Lagasse.

Last weekend the latest Indycar transplant to stockcar racing did a superb job in the ARCA 200-miler at Daytona, finishing sixth after running in the top five and coming from the back of the pack after being punted into the infield by former Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr.

In fact, Patrick was driving aggressively in the final laps, showing she’s not afraid to rub fenders. However, today she’ll be going up against much stiffer competition, including a number of Cup regulars.

The ESPN announcing team addressed Patrick’s Nationwide debut in a news conference on Wednesday, and Dale Jarrett characterized the difference between ARCA and Nationwide by saying, “She just graduated from high school – now she’s going to college. She’s just stepping to a whole other level.”

Producer Rich Feinberg weighed in with the need to provide a balanced telecast, not just the Danica Patrick Show, but he also noted that her participation will probably be good for the sport, attracting new viewers.

“We want to serve that curiosity,” Feinberg said. “We want to serve that interest because our belief is if they like what they see, and we provide them what they’re interested in, they may come back next week.”

Of course, there’s a whole other race going on at Daytona this weekend, the Daytona 500. The field was set Thursday with the Gatorade Duel races. The two 150-milers were remarkably clean, with only a few incidents. There was lots of drama in the second race, as Michael Waltrip joined the SPEED broadcast team to see if he was going to be in the big race. If either Bobby Labonte or Scott Speed raced their way into the field, Michael would make the 500, and it went right down to the wire in a nail-biting finish. Speed edged his way in during the final laps, and you could almost hear Waltrip’s sigh of relief without the use of a microphone.

And how about the finishes? Jimmie Johnson edged out Kevin Harvick at the line by a bumper in the first race, and Kasey Kahne’s win over Tony Stewart in the second race was almost a carbon copy. If the finishes are indicative of tomorrow’s racing, it promises to be one of the best Dayton 500’s ever.

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Maybe the racing is as good as it is at Daytona this year because NASCAR, in the face of declining race attendance and TV ratings, has instituted a fan forum and is actually listening.

As a result, it opened up the restrictor plates for this year’s race, giving the Cup cars a little more horsepower. More important than the horsepower, though, is the improved drivability.

All during the Duel races, Darrell Waltrip kept pointing out that drivers now have some throttle response. Rather than keeping their foot to the floor to keep their place in line, drivers can now modulate the throttle a bit and not immediately fall to the back of the pack.

This allows more passing and closer racing. NASCAR took the bump-drafting prohibition away as well, letting the drivers decide where to draw the line on that particular maneuver.

Fans also indicated that NASCAR might consider removing the double yellow line rule at Daytona, but when approached with the idea, the drivers decided that this was one recent rule they wanted to keep.

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Yesterday’s rain is going to give the Nationwide drivers a green track to work with at the start of today’s race. This will make the early laps of the race more harrowing than usual, with grip at a premium. Look for caution flags early and often.

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Of course, that’s assuming that the rain is gone. It’s interesting to note that in the 50- year history of the Daytona 500, the race has never been rained out. It has been shortened and delayed, but never rained out. With mostly cloudy skies predicted today and tomorrow, it looks as if that string will continue.