All signs point to fun, stress-free final Daytona 500 for Danica
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Danica Patrick raced for JR Motorsports from 2010 to 2012, her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., put up a sign that pointed to the lounge in the team transporter that carried the cars and other equipment from track to track.
The sign read: "Key West."
The idea was to get people to relax, to have fun and to not get caught up in the drama of a race weekend. When Patrick called Eury last month about potentially serving as crew chief for her final NASCAR race, she said something to the effect of "How would like to spend 10 days in Key West?"
For Patrick, Daytona International Speedway is as close to the Key West feel as she can get in racing. Despite the track's unforgiving nature of racing, it made the most sense for Patrick to end her NASCAR career with the Daytona 500. She could have ended it last November at a place much closer to Key West, Homestead-Miami Speedway, where she competed in her final race with Stewart-Haas Racing.
But she wanted one more shot at a track where she feels she has a good chance to run well. She wanted to do it with a sense of happiness and not one of sadness over not finding a sponsor to extend her career.
"It's beautiful out there, and Tony is always funny ... [and] a really good, spirited, happy guy that knows what he is doing," Patrick said.
Patrick said she hopes to have fun as she ends her racing career with the Daytona 500 on Sunday and then the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 in May. Her pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 remains the only pole ever won by a female driver in NASCAR Cup history. Patrick finished eighth in that race, the highest finish by a female in the 59 years of the event.
But she also has failed to finish on the lead lap in her past five Daytona starts in Cup competition. Accidents have taken their toll as part of the unpredictable nature of the Daytona races.
"Like any other weekend, there is one person happy walking away, and the rest are frustrated," Patrick said. "Actually, a lot of times in Daytona, in super-speedway weekends, you walk away going, 'Well, go to bed' instead of being frustrated that you weren't close or you weren't in the ballgame.
"Of course, the goal is to win the race -- 100 percent. I don't really need any friends, so I might take that into consideration. On top of that, I hope that it's one of those things where they know I was there and had a great race and had a lot of fun."
Patrick will race at Daytona with Premium Motorsports, a typically underfunded race team but one that finished Michael Waltrip's career with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 last year and had a guaranteed spot in the race.
Eury, who went into the late model manufacturing business after leaving racing, came on board in the past couple weeks at Premium for this event. He remembers the good days with Patrick, when she won a pole for the Xfinity race in 2012 and he helped guide her to a 10th-place finish in the Xfinity race in July 2011.
"It's basically a non-pressure weekend," Eury said. "She wants to have fun like we had when she started, and that's the way she wants her last weekend to be ... remembering how she came in, where things were a lot of fun, but we were competitive."
Patrick will start 14th in her qualifying race Thursday, after finishing 28th out of 40 cars in single-car qualifying last weekend. She expects to run conservatively in the qualifying race because the team wants to have the primary car intact for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. She said it almost feels like any other season, when she returns in February after not being in a car since November.
"I don't think it does much good to treat this much different than I ever have in the past, other than perhaps just not get too wrapped up in worrying about every last detail and have some fun," Patrick said.
The dynamic of racing at Daytona typically keeps the cars in one big pack. New aerodynamic rules for the cars this year could potentially break the pack into smaller groups, but most drivers will enter the race with the expectation to be in the fastest pack for the final third of the race.
"You just hope that you're in contention," Patrick said. "The only way that things could get split up is that somehow the end of the race turns into a long stint. And there's a pit stop, and there's a broken-up group.
"That's all that you can think of that would make it smaller, but you hope that you're in contention and that you're there."
In other words, they will roll the dice when necessary -- with an eye on the finish.
"This [Daytona 500] is probably one of the easier races that you could ask for it to happen," Eury said of Patrick's choice to end her NASCAR career. "Anything can happen here. You've just got to be smart, put yourself in a good position where you don't get wrecked. It's a gamble for everybody. So you can come out of here smelling like a rose, or you can go home a loser. We're going to give it a good shot."
Patrick said the Daytona 500 absolutely is the best place for her to end her NASCAR career.
"It's the biggest race of the year," she said. "It's where I made the most news. I made the most news in the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in both sides of the career.
"It makes great sense. I know it is the start of a season instead of the end of one, but it's the biggest one of the year, and people have a shot at that one."
Daytona is a happy place?
"Sure," Patrick said. "There's a beach ... and so much potential."