It’s too bad that nobody on the NASCAR RaceDay program Saturday night had the guts to ask Kyle Petty about Danica Patrick’s performance in the just-finished ARCA Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 because it would have been fun to watch him eat his words.
While most NASCAR drivers have been either non-committal or mildly supportive of Patrick’s cautious move from Indy cars to the stockers, Petty was adamant several weeks ago that while she might be a "marketing machine," she isn’t much of a racing driver.
Well, if her performance in that ARCA race is any indication – and, yes, ARCA ain’t NASCAR, but still – she’ll do just fine in stock cars, thank you.
Patrick finished sixth in the Slick Mist 200 – a race won for the sixth time by Bobby Gerhart – and she handled everything that was thrown at her with skill and ease. Starts, restarts, pit stops, drafting – she looked like a veteran out there. When she was knocked sideways and out of control by Nelson Piquet Jr. (who, until that point, had been looking pretty comfortable out there also), she stayed calm and cool and collected the car before it could do any damage.
The incident – which forced her into the pits twice for fuel, tires and repairs to the car’s bodywork – resulted in her dropping to the back of the field but she put the hammer down and fought her way back into the top ten, actually running as high as fifth at one point.
On the last lap, coming out of the fourth turn and heading for the checkers, she leaned right down on ex-supercross champion Ricky Carmichael and the two traded paint for a couple of hundred metres before Patrick pulled ever so slightly ahead at the line.
She said afterward that she’d had fun.
"I was pretty excited to go from last to back to the top five again and then I jumped up high (out of the draft down low and up toward the wall) and I was like, ‘whatever, there’s eight to go, who cares? Let’s see who’s coming with me. . ."
Because of her impressive performance, it won’t be a surprise if her employer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., announces that she’ll make her NASCAR debut next weekend in the Nationwide Series race the day before the Daytona 500.
She’ll attract a crowd, that’s for sure. When she left the pits after her second stop, the roar of encouragement from the fans in attendance could be heard above the motors.
The last time an "outsider" made an impression as great as Patrick’s was in 1993 when the reigning world champion Formula One driver, Nigel Mansell, came to North American to drive in the CART series.
As is the case with Patrick, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV without the columnists or commentators going on and on about Mansell. At Indianapolis, the photographers would stake out a spot around Mansell’s pit anywhere from 20 minutes to a half hour before he was due to go out for practice, much to the consternation, irritation (and jealousy) of the other Indy racing heroes of the day.
For instance, when Canadian Ross Bentley was taken to the infield hospital after his car caught fire during a practice run, several dozen reporters were standing outside the care centre being briefed by Dr. Henry Bock, the speedway’s medical director.
Eddie Cheever, who was passing by on a golf cart, stopped to see what was happening. "Is Nigel in there," he asked?
Told no, he responded: "He won’t be happy to know that Ross Bentley is getting more attention than he is."
Mansell won the CART championship that season and the hysteria subsequently settled down, surely as it will with Patrick.
Other ARCA observations:
– Mark Thompson was second and John Wes Townley was third. Steve Arpin of Fort Frances, Ont., was tenth. Jennifer Jo Cobb, the highest-placed woman after Patrick, finished 17th. Indy car driver Milka Duno was eliminated in an early-race pileup and was last in the 43-car field.
– When Jill George somehow got upside down and went head-first into the wall coming out of the fourth turn at a very high rate of speed, it was a miracle that she emerged from the wreck in apparent good shape.
"Thank God for the SAFER barrier," said announcer Darrel Waltrip (although it turned out that Jill George had just missed it and actually hit the concrete wall). It’s too bad that Waltrip didn’t mention that another person named George was responsible for the SAFER – a guy named Tony George.
– Jill George’s accident resulted in a long red flag so repairs could be made to the retaining wall and protective fencing. Which was a good thing, because it gave the sun time to go down rather than continue to shine directly into the drivers’ eyes coming off the fourth turn.
I realize the ARCA race has to be shoehorned between Daytona 500 pole qualifying and the Budweiser Shootout, but the setting sun – for 15 minutes or a half-hour – can be blinding and potentially dangerous.
I have a friend (no names here, as I don’t want to embarrass him) who was making his very first run in a supermodified racing car at New York’s Oswego Speedway one Saturday way back in 1982.
It was late afternoon-early evening and the sun – as it was at Daytona Saturday – was shining directly into the drivers’ eyes.
"You couldn’t see a thing," my friend told me once, in explaining the completely boneheaded move he was about to make.
"I floored it coming out of four and I couldn’t see and I was going a million miles an hour and I figured I must be just about at the first turn so I lifted off the throttle and I turned left."
The problem was, he was only a little over half way down the front straight so that when he turned left he went straight into the inside steel retaining wall and destroyed his race car and very nearly him, too.
That’s funny. But it’s too dangerous to laugh. Daytona has to do something about that sun, like start the ARCA race earlier, or later, to avoid it.
– Mark Martin, who must be a hundred and fifty now, won the pole for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start outside on the front row. They are the only two locked into position for the big race. All other starting positions will be determined next Thursday when the two qualifying races are held. Fifty-four drivers are shooting for the 43 starting spots.
– Kevin Harvick won the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night, which ended with a bang. Between six and eight cars piled up on the second-last lap when Jeff Gordon got into the back of Greg Biffle and all hell broke loose.
Kasey Kahne finished second and Jamie McMurray was third, followed by Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
The drivers seem to have taken NASCAR’s suggestion to "have at it" to heart. Saturday night’s ka-boomer was the third "big one" in three days. A lot of machinery is going to be torn up this season, if the Daytona experience is any indication, which means it’s going to cost the owners a fortune to keep turning out the cars.
Let’s cross our fingers that the cars are the only things damaged.