Sat Feb 06 07:24pm EST
Danica Patrick has run her first stock car race, and not only did she not embarrass herself or the sport, she came on strong, weathered a spin, and finished sixth. And all of a sudden, the Danica Experiment has gone from sponsor-driven gimmickry to legitimate racing operation.
Patrick qualified 12th in the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200, an 80-lap ARCA race which was intended to help her get comfortable behind the wheel of a stock car. She traded paint with a few of her fellow drivers, and at one point spun the car but avoided what would have been a race-ending collision with the wall. She demonstrated skill in race management in getting herself from the back of the pack back into the mix. And while she never really threatened for the lead, she certainly proved that she's got the skills to handle a stock car.
We also got a taste of what TV coverage will be like when Danica's on the track. SPEED's cameras focused almost continuously on Danica, touching on her progress every single lap. Danica wasn't the only driver in the race -- heck, she wasn't even the only woman -- but she drew the vast majority of media attention. After the race, she was swarmed by media in a way almost certainly unparalleled in ARCA history.
"I was pretty excited to go from last back to the top 5," she said after the race. "The car felt really good. That was fun!" Her finish was the best at an ARCA race in Daytona by a female since Shawna Robinson finished second in 1999.
Earlier in the day, NASCAR president Mike Helton was enthusiastic about Danica's presence. "It’s given us all the things that any sport or business would love – the exposure, uplift," he said. "We have people following the sport that may have never looked at it for any other reason. So it’s huge."
Indeed it is. So what's next? Given this performance, which drew raves from team owner Rick Hendrick, Patrick could well run in next weekend's Nationwide race, where she'll get her first taste of driving against Sprint Cup-level drivers like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and her team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. From there, she's on to a 12-race schedule that she'll work around her day job in the Indy Racing League. For Danica, so far, so good.
Oh, and congratulations to Bobby Gerhart. Who's he? The race winner, of course. Yep, that's how it's going to be this year.
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