Category archive: Danica Patrick

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Will Jimmie Johnson do what hasn't been done in 31 years? Or might Danica Patrick do what's never been done?

Probably not.

But those are the two hottest questions going into Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Call them too pop-culture in nature, with two mainstream names, not inside enough for hard-core NASCAR fans, if you will. But, hey: This is a pop-culture race, always has been, run in a hurry before an audience comprised more of beachgoers than serious fans.

This is the direct descendent of the Firecracker 400, which many still deem the best name ever for a NASCAR race, before the advent of commercial names.

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Danica Patrick
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick was impressive at Daytona in February. Will she be even better on Saturday?

What Johnson could do is become the first driver to sweep both races at Daytona International Speedway in a single season since Bobby Allison did it in 1982.

Patrick, as with every week she fires her engine, can become the first woman to win a major NASCAR race -- but it's much more interesting this weekend than it has been at, say, Michigan or Charlotte this year.

She started on the pole for the Daytona 500 in February, ran in the lead pack throughout the race, was third going into the final lap and wound up eighth because she didn't yet know how to swim with the sharks in a restrictor-plate-racing shuffle at the end.

So this could be her best shot to win since the season opener.

Johnson was quick but subtle to point out the differences in his own task from what Allison accomplished.

"Have plates been on for 31 years too?" JJ deadpanned. Allison's feat came five years before restrictor plates were instituted. In '82 a driver could race and win on his and his car's own merits. Now, of course, a driver is largely along for the wild ride in the shuffling and scrambling of plate racing, depending on others for aerodynamic pushes and pulls.

And this may be the same track Johnson won the Daytona 500 on this year, but conditions are different -- somehow even more intense for the summer race than for NASCAR's showcase event in February.

"When you come back for this event the track has so much less grip, much hotter conditions, and there is just more urgency to lead … just more energy and more opportunities to make mistakes in the July race than in the February race … .

"Also, everybody is just charged up for a night race, Fourth of July weekend and all those things."

Different, yes, but, "I feel like it's not going to be worlds of difference," Patrick said in response to questions as to whether she can deliver a drive as electrifying as hers in February.

"Yeah, I can do the same thing," she said. "I don't get worse as the year goes on."

Her friend and TV commercial colleague, Dale Earnhardt Jr., got a point blank question: Can Danica actually win this race?

"Yes. Of course. Absolutely," he said.

Patrick figures the biggest reason she dropped back from third to eighth in the last-lap shuffle in February was that she failed to take advantage of an opportunity to work with Earnhardt in the waning moments.

Should the two find themselves in position to draft together again Saturday night, does Patrick now have enough experience that Earnhardt could help her win? Or, conversely, enough experience that she could help Earnhardt win?

"The answer is yes for both," Earnhardt said. "With plate racing you just don't know. Mark Martin was pushing me in the [February] race and he has as much experience as anybody, and we didn't get the job done, as good as I think we are at it …

"You just sort of go by your gut in those last moments," Earnhardt continued. "It just comes down to anyone, her or I or anybody, making that gut decision at that moment …

"You don't fall back on years of experience," Earnhardt said. "It comes down to, really, like dodging a bullet as you move left or right and hope you make the right decision."

Where the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's showcase race, the 400 is a sprint with enormous sense of urgency, flying by the gut, dodging bullets.

"Firecracker 400" still says it best about this race.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Welcome to a cluster function -- to a day that would be hell if it really mattered.

Six a.m. on the beach, still dark, drizzling, well into the second cup of coffee, and on the local cable news channel the sports anchor chirps:

"Daytona Media Day today. We're all over it!"

Everybody's all over it, all over the drivers, all over each other.

This'll be a cluster function, all right. As usual.

Out the door, down the elevator, into the rental car, across the Port Orange Bridge as the rain intensifies, up Clyde Morris Blvd., out to International Speedway Blvd., all in the predawn gloom.

The cluster function starts officially at 8 a.m. but you'd better be there an hour early if you want space in the working area. Once set up in the big tent, you deal with some pretty rough coffee and wait … and get glad-handed by the steady stream of publicists.

First you congratulate the NASCAR people on their slick scheduling move. They've made Jimmie Johnson the first up, at 8 a.m. That'll draw the brunt of the media in early. And that should get all the Truck series drivers booked around Johnson some interviews they wouldn't otherwise have gotten.

In years past, media types didn't have a very good record at showing up early for Truck and Nationwide drivers. Johnson forces everybody's hand.

The NASCAR people chuckle and nod, never denying they planned it this way, with Johnson as the drawing card.

But Johnson spoils my angle right on the dot at 8 a.m. when I ask him how it feels to be dragged out early as media bait.

"I picked the time slot," says JJ, morning person.

"I've always been that way. My dad, working construction, was always up early and out the door. I'd get up and have some breakfast with him before I got ready for school.

"So it's just kind of been my wiring since childhood."

Good thing they've got one star who's a morning person. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't be in until 12:30 p.m. -- and that's early for him.

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Danica Patrick
HHP ImagesDanica Patrick is never short of media attention.

Nine a.m. and here I sit in the work area, just off the main stage of Speed Channel's ongoing live talk show, squinting into the lights, listening to my digital recorder.

You should hear what I have to hear. Here's Johnson, the softest-spoken driver in NASCAR, barely discernible at best, and somebody's had the great judgment to put his interview booth right next to a roaring blower for the big tent's ventilation system.

On top of that, just as I think I've extracted a mumbled Johnson phrase from the recording of the blower's roar, laughter explodes from the guys on the Speed set as somebody cracks a joke.

Back up the recording. Play it back. Back it up. Play it back. So it goes.

Here comes Danica Patrick into the grinder, with her PR handlers. First she's up on the Speed stage for live talk with the panel. Then she'll go to Fox and then ESPN for preseason interviews, then to Sirius satellite radio, then before wide firing lines of local TV crews, then to print media.

That's pretty much the cycle for all drivers today. We call it "the car wash."

Danica arrives at her print interview booth 10 minutes late, and a crowd has long stood gathered round, surrounding her, four reporters deep.

"I thought Jimmie Johnson was over here," she cracks as she sits down.

For all drivers and all reporters, in all booths, before all cameras, the task is the same.

Everybody is trying to think of a question the drivers haven't already been asked during preseason testing and/or the media tour in January.

And the drivers are trying to figure out how to phrase the same answers differently.

And everybody is failing.

This is a cluster function, all right.