Danica wows 'em in stock car debut

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If first impressions mean anything, this little lady is going to rock your world.

Danica Patrick wasn't quite the conquering hero in her stock car debut -- finishing sixth in the ARCA race Saturday night -- but it was a performance to remember.

This was no sideshow, not on the track, that is. It was total madness when she got out of the car, with a horde of reporters and fans crowding around the tiny woman in a firesuit as police escorted her to her hauler.

Patrick took it all in stride. She proved her point. She showed she means business. She is not just a pretty face.

Patrick took all the danger that Daytona can offer and held it together.

She got wrecked and made a remarkable save. She fell back, kept her cool and raced her way back to the front in the final laps.

The wow factor was there, and it came from how she drove the No. 7 Chevy, not because she happens to be a huge national celebrity.

"I had so much fun in a race car today," Patrick said. "I enjoyed mixing it up. I can't wait to do it again."

Neither can anyone else who saw her get after it in a typically wild crashfest of a Daytona ARCA race. Did anything surprise her?

"Everything was a little surprising, but nothing crazy," Patrick said. "A lot of yellows today, but other than that, the car does get really loose when you get hit."

Patrick got hit and she did some hitting. She held her own and didn't give an inch.

And she definitely wowed us.

Wow factor No. 1: Patrick went spinning into the infield grass after getting hit by former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet.

"We came out of [Turn 4] and he was kind of dropping back," Patrick said. "He tried to cut over to get the inside line but I was there. I can't go below the yellow line to pass, so it collected us. I could either back off and wuss-out or keep my foot in it and make him react to me."

She didn't "wuss-out." Patrick held her ground and Piquet slammed into the lime-green GoDaddy-sponsored ride. Patrick's car scooted back up the track and appeared headed for a nasty crash into the wall.

But she showed amazing car control and made a surprising save (one that many a Sprint Cup driver wouldn't make), keeping the car straight as it headed back down to pit road.

Big wow.

Wow factor No. 2: The incident with Piquet moved Patrick to the tail end of the lead lap. On a restart with 17 laps to go, she was 23rd.

It was go time. Patrick drove the wheels off it, mashing the gas and doing everything she could to get back to the front.

Her strategy all race was to stay against the yellow line down low. That wasn't going to work at the end.

"You have to check up a lot down there," she said. "So I started working the outside line. I said to myself, 'Now I know what Dale Jr. sees in the outside line.'

"You don't have to lift up there. Up high you just keep your foot in it. I took a couple of chances and dove in between a few people a couple of times."

Patrick stepped on it and kept moving up. She made up four spots in one lap. She was 11th with 12 laps to go; eighth with nine laps remaining. With five laps left, Patrick had worked her way to fifth.

Bigger wow.

Then she decided to go for broke. She wanted to win. But she got greedy.

"It was really cool to come back into the top five again," she said. "So at that point I said, 'What the heck. I'm not going to win sitting right here. I made it this far, so let's see what else I can do.' I went high and unfortunately not many takers came with me."

Patrick moved out of line to move outside and dropped back to seventh. She banged into former motocross star Ricky Carmichael heading for the checkered flag to finish sixth.

Danica Patrick It was really cool to come back into the top five again. So at that point I said, 'What the heck. I'm not going to win sitting right here. I made it this far, so let's see what else I can do.' I went high and unfortunately not many takers came with me.

-- Danica Patrick

"Me and Ricky had a little side bumping at the end," she said. "That was really cool. I got bumped everywhere out there."

For a while, it looked like Patrick wouldn't be the top-finishing female in the race. Alli Owens, a Daytona Beach native, was running third on the final restart. She got shuffled back and later spun on the backstretch, finishing 23rd.

But Owens also showed she belongs. If Patrick succeeds, more women like Owens will get a chance and gain sponsorship to move up.

And oh, by the way, ARCA veteran Bobby Gerhart won the race. He joked about the lack of interest he received from the media. Was he overshadowed?

"Overshadowed? By what? Did I miss something?" he asked. "Honestly, I'm glad [Patrick] was here. She brought some well-needed attention to this series."

The mastermind to Patrick's impressive effort was crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who was constantly coaching her on the radio.

"She wanted me to give her all the information I could," Eury said. "Some of it may have sounded like the obvious, but it was just refreshers for her to make sure we didn't make any mistakes."

Patrick made some mistakes, but the story was how she overcame them.

The pressure will increase now for her to compete in the Nationwide race next Saturday as her NASCAR debut. If so, she will take a race away from JR Motorsports driver Kelly Bires.

"I haven't made any decision on that," Patrick said. "I'm just thinking about what I learned, what I could do better and everyone's hard work. We've not talked about next weekend.

"Kelly is running the full season and it's either me or him. He's been a really great teammate [at Daytona]. He's racing for points and I have to think about that."

Whether next weekend or two weeks from now in Fontana, Calif., Patrick's NASCAR debut just got a lot more interesting.

Saturday was only one event, one initial test in a league full of drivers who often wreck more than they race.

But school was in session for a celebrated newbie. She passed the test with flying colors. Patrick just might have what it takes.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.