BRISTOL, Tenn. -- It wasn't quite the helmet throw heard 'round the world, but Danica Patrick made her own dramatic impression last fall in her first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. This time around, she's expecting more rough-and-tumble racing, but hopes to see the Food City 500 through to its full 500-lap distance.
Patrick enters the first short-track race of the season by embracing it with anticipation, hoping to erase the sour taste of lackluster finishes the previous two weeks at Phoenix and Las Vegas. She isn't expecting her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to have a pristine appearance by the end of Sunday's race, the fourth this season in the Sprint Cup tour, but she also expects to respond in kind to any bumper tag that her 42 on-track rivals might dole out.
It's only fair, she reasons.
"I don't mind some beating and banging out there, I don't mind pushing your way around a little bit. It just happens," Patrick said before Friday's first practice on the .533-mile concrete bullring. " ? I enjoy it. I've always said from the beginning that NASCAR is a lot of fun for me because if somebody lays on you, you can lay right back. You aren't risking your life, like the old days in IndyCar when somebody would do something that was not intelligent to you, I understood that it was a physical risk to try and get them back, because when the wheels are exposed, bad things happen. Not here, though. Not in NASCAR. You can bump and bang all you like."
Patrick found herself on the wrong end of Bristol's bumps last August. A run-in with Regan Smith sent Patrick's car hurtling into the inside wall less than 75 laps from the end, destroying a realistic shot at a respectable lead-lap finish in her Bristol debut.
Perhaps taking a cue from her boss, Tony Stewart, whose famous two-hand helmet throw at Matt Kenseth's car ignited the crowd into a frenzy earlier in the night, Patrick wasn't about to let Smith's actions go without response. She dismounted in a huff, shed her helmet and once Smith's ominous matte black car passed, Patrick issued the most noteworthy finger wag by a professional athlete since Rafael Palmeiro stared down a Congressional panel at a 2005 steroids hearing.
Theatrics aside, the 434 laps Patrick logged taught her a thing or two about navigating Bristol's pitfalls. Still, she won't overcorrect this weekend with a more cautious approach.
"When we are racing nose to tail really close, it's always more of a risk, of course," Patrick said, "but there is nothing I can do to prepare myself better for the race that would fix the problem from last time of getting taken out. If you get taken out, you get taken out. Hopefully that doesn't happen. The best thing I can do for that is try and get further up the field so that (I am) around some smarter drivers. Hopefully that happens."
Being further up in the field would be a welcome salve after last week's showing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Patrick was lapped early and often, limping to a 33rd-place finish -- six laps down -- with an ill-handling car. The outing made for an all-encompassing debrief session once the team returned to its North Carolina base.
"I went into the shop on Tuesday and there was definitely some thoughts and concepts that they were like, 'Look, we did this wrong. We need to fix that. Your comments made sense from practice. It didn't even make sense to me that we needed to do them necessarily for the race,' " Patrick said. "I think that this car works a little differently in traffic as well. Aerodynamically we have lost a lot of side-force, and I think that plays a role. I think that we have to get all four tires on the ground the way they need to be. We have to get the rear tied down. There's nothing you can do if you can't put the power down."
Patrick's 10-event foray into Sprint Cup racing last season was intended to throw NASCAR's most treacherous tracks and some of the longest races her way in hopes of accelerating her learning curve ahead of this, her first full Sprint Cup season. Three races in, Patrick's grade is too early to etch on a report card, but Sunday's race -- all 500 laps of it, she hopes -- may provide a better answer of just how far she's come.
"It makes me appreciate all the races I did last year, and how almost all of them were 500 miles," Patrick said. "It is a different mindset. I feel like no matter what happens -- whether it's a 200-lap race, or a 500-lap race, you find your rhythm. Time goes by fast sometimes, and sometimes it's slow. All I can hope is the car has a decent balance because when it doesn't, that's when the laps seem wrong. If we can just get a decent car, and get into a rhythm, and find ourselves in a good spot, have a consistent car throughout the race, time does go pretty quickly usually."
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