By Marques Trost
Special for NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- Danica Patrick is in the middle of her first full season as a NASCAR Nationwide Series driver. As far as experience in a stock car is concerned, Patrick is at a disadvantage compared to most drivers at this weekend's NASCAR Nationwide Series Sargento 200 at Road America.
What makes this weekend unique for Patrick, however, is her previous road-course experience from the IndyCar series. She raced at Road America back in 2003 in the Toyota Atlantic Series.
"I'm glad to have been here before," Patrick said before Friday's practice sessions at the 4.048-mile course. "It's definitely a big track and I'm glad to have seen it before. For me I'm just trying to learn how stock cars drive on road courses. Last year in Montreal I learned quite a bit but I'm going to keep on learning on how to make the car better, what to deal with and what not to deal with."
Patrick finished 24th in her Nationwide road-racing debut at Montreal last season and is currently 11th in the Nationwide series standings. The No. 7 GoDaddy.com driver would welcome some familiar turf, after a disappointing time last weekend in Michigan where she was involved in a handful of cautions in finishing 18th.
"My comfort level is not super high because I haven't done much of it in a stock car, but as far as coming to a road course I suppose the tables have turned with me coming from so much road racing the last couple of years in IndyCar," Patrick said.
"I get that feeling from some other drivers that came up through the stock car ranks that they don't always love coming to road races. That's how I used to feel coming to road courses but now I'm like 'All right, let's do this'. I'm more comfortable and glad that I've been here before."
LAST YEAR'S FINISH A HOT TOPIC
Road-course specialists Max Papis, Jacques Villeneuve and Ron Fellows all had memorable races at Road America last year, which ended with three attempts at a green-white-checker finish. On the first try, Villeneuve tried going inside on Turn 1 but ran out of track and caused Papis and a fellow driver to wreck.
Fellows and eventual race winner Reed Sorenson were involved in some drama on the third and final attempt as well. Aric Almirola caused the seventh and final caution when he ran out of gas in Turn 6 and it was eventually ruled by NASCAR that Fellows passed Sorenson after the caution was issued, giving Sorenson the win.
Most of the questions during the press conference revolved around what could happen at Turn 1 if the race went like last year with an overtime finish. Fellows wasn't shy about what he predicted.
"There is going to be chaos if it goes green-white-checker," Fellows said.
Turn 1 is nearly a 90-degree right-hander and a great opportunity for a driver to move up a couple of spots. As seen last year, however, it can also turn into a big mess if a driver is over-aggressive.
"We had, ultimately, quite a good weekend even though the end of the race was a little bit too exciting," Villeneuve said. "It's a great team and everybody is coming here to get a good result. The plan is to keep my nose clean for the race."
With a second-place finish last year, Fellows knows what he needs to do in order to take the checkered flag this time around.
"We ran ourselves out of time," Fellows said of last year's effort. "We got killed on the restarts and have to have something saved for the end."
McCLURE RETURNS AFTER TALLADEGA CRASH
This weekend also marks the return of Eric McClure, who has missed the past seven weeks following a serious crash at Talladega Superspeedway that put him in the hospital for two days. McClure suffered his third concussion and some internal bleeding, leaving the 33-year old driver's future in doubt.
"I wanted to come back as soon as they would let me and I can't think of a better place to come back than Road America," McClure said. "I've always said this isn't the most important thing in my life. Not because I'm not a competitive guy, but because I'm 33 years old and have a family and enjoy spending time with them. It's not just because of the accident that I'm thinking 'What's next?' Thinking about how to transition into the next stage of my life did come to mind."
McClure did have a slight detour with a spin during Friday's practice, but his spirits remained high.
"It felt great," McClure said. "Ran a pretty competitive speed but then got off course which was a little scary. It felt good and that's a big relief for me."
ROAD EXPERTS TOP PRACTICE
Jacques Villeneuve had the fastest times in Friday's first practice session with a lap speed of 109.107 mph. Rounding out the top five from the morning session were Nelson Piquet Jr. (108.581 mph), Max Papis (107.763 mph), Michael McDowell (107.502 mph) and Ron Fellows (107.374 mph).
The afternoon practice run saw plenty of familiar faces. Papis topped the speed charts at 109.282 mph, followed by McDowell (108.026 mph), Piquet Jr. (107.868 mph), Villeneuve (107.853 mph) and Sam Hornish Jr. (107.180 mph).