DARLINGTON, S.C. — Danica Patrick is ready to earn her stripes – probably plenty of them – this weekend at the Southern 500.
Patrick is back in the Sprint Cup series for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 and she picked one
of the circuit’s most treacherous tracks for her return in Darlington Raceway.
Sprint Cup veterans leave the quirky, egg-shaped oval shaking their heads, let alone rookies unaccustomed to the odd corners, narrow straightaways and walls that attract cars like magnets. Even Patrick’s boss, Tony Stewart, hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race at Darlington.
“Why not start right away with the most difficult tracks?” Patrick said. “If you want to have the most complete season you can, you might as well learn at the hardest race tracks.”
Patrick is sure to have her hands full at Darlington and will no doubt quickly earn her “Darlington stripe” – the worn mark along car’s right side from continually rubbing against the outside walls – once practice starts Friday for Saturday night’s race.
Patrick plans to lean heavily on Stewart for tips at Darlington, even though Stewart’s lone trip to victory lane here came in the Nationwide Series event in 2008. She has been told, for example, that because the track is so narrow, it is better to let someone pass heading into a corner.
“It’s a confusing sort of racing,” Patrick said.
Stewart acknowledged he threw Patrick to the “wolves” with some of the tracks she’s going to face. But the seat time will serve her well in years to come.
“I’m not worried about the finishes at the end of the day,” Stewart said. “It’s just finishing the race, getting the laps and getting that experience in the car.”
Darlington has confounded the greatest in NASCAR. Richard Petty had only three of his record 200 NASCAR victories at Darlington. Jimmie Johnson swept both races here in 2004, yet hasn’t won at Darlington since.
“It’s going to be tough” for Patrick, said 2010 Southern 500 champion Denny Hamlin. “No doubt about it.”
Hamlin remembers running dozens of test laps at Darlington before his first Nationwide Series race at the raceway in 2004.
“I literally wore every piece of sheet metal off the right side before I was done testing,” he said. “It’s such a challenging track. It’s unlike any track she’s been on even in Indy cars.”