DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick proved this much Saturday: Her desire to drive stock cars is not a novelty act.
Despite a collision with another car that briefly dropped her deep in the field and her unfamiliarity with the famed “drafting” at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick drove an impressive race and stormed back to finish sixth in her first stock car race.
“I had so much fun in a race car today,” an ebullient Patrick told a media swarm that greeted her in the garage after the race. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
The 80-lap ARCA Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 — won by Bobby Gerhart of Pennsylvania — was Patrick’s first step toward racing on the much larger NASCAR circuit in and around her full schedule on the Izod IndyCar Series.
Indeed, the race essentially was a practice round for Patrick before she immediately jumps to NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series either next weekend here or Feb. 20 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Patrick said she expects to decide Monday where her Nationwide debut will be. She’s driving for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver.
To be sure, the overall quality and skill level of the developmental ARCA Series is not on par with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where several drivers in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series such as Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton also compete.
“There’s a lot of experience out there (in NASCAR); I don’t know that she’s ready for it,” said Kelley Earnhardt, JR Motorsports’ general manager and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sister. “It’s just going to have to be something that we all discuss.”
Either way, Patrick, who normally drives the lightweight, sleek Indy-style cars, appeared a quick study of her 3,000-pound No. 7 Chevrolet stock car as she banged fenders with other cars and maneuvered in the draft, where the cars run nose-to-tail.
She was coached throughout by veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin and former crew chief.
“I think she showed us she was able to drive, definitely,” Kelley Earnhardt said. “She did a great job for her first race.”