FORT WORTH, Texas - Danica Patrick is learning some hard lessons.
"Danica Mania" quieted a bit Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway when Patrick looked very much like the first-year driver she is, finishing 13th in the 22-car field and never running in contention during the Indy Racing League's Bombardier Learjet 500.
The 23-year-old rookie has caused a media and fan frenzy the past month by leading two straight races and finishing fourth in both, including the May 29 Indianapolis 500.
Expectations were even higher when the only woman in the IndyCar Series qualified third for the Texas race, her third straight qualifier in the top four.
She came down to earth very quickly, fading fast after the green flag flew for the first night race in her career. Patrick spent most of the race running in midpack before finishing as the last car on the lead lap as series veterans took control up front.
But no less an authority than two-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr., who lost a battle for the win to Tomas Scheckter by half a car-length, said there is no shame in Danica's lackluster showing on the demanding 1½-mile Texas oval.
"Just because it was a bad day, you shouldn't turn around and say, 'Does this mean that you can't do it any more?' You know I got those questions all the time when I first started," Hornish said. "It's tough to be out there. Every race treats you differently."
Scheckter, who picked up his second career victory and first since 2002, echoed Hornish, noting, "Sometimes, these rookies got a little bit to learn. I'm sure it's not a flash in the pan and they're going to be around for a long time."
Patrick had an inkling that Saturday's race might be tough on her when she faltered during the important final practice session on Friday, running well off the pace.
"It's easy enough going around there by yourself," she said. "But, you put a bunch of other cars out there, you know, it's a different element. Like I've said all along all year, the car moves around a lot and you have to understand and have a grasp for what's going to happen.
"I'm still not used to it and I'm still not sure always what it's going to do."
It was her worst showing since getting caught up in a crash in the season-opener at Homestead, Fla., where she wound up 15th. But it didn't daunt the cool, confident Patrick at all.
"I'm disappointed, of course I am," she said. "You know, while I'm racing against these guys that are so good, it's going to happen. It's going to take time to be ready for all situations.
"I know it takes time to learn things. It's going to show again this year, I promise."
Her next challenge will come June 25 at Richmond International Raceway.
Several of the veteran drivers pointed out after her run at Indy, the best showing at the historic Brickyard by a woman, that the races at Texas and Richmond would likely be tough on any rookie.
"These are tracks where you're almost always in traffic and it takes some time to get the feel for the way things flow during the race," said reigning series champion Tony Kanaan, who was third at Texas. "And they're both at night, which is also very different."
Kanaan pointed out that upcoming races at Kansas, Michigan, Kentucky and Chicagoland could play right into Danica's hands.
"Her team has run good at those tracks," he said. "She's going to make some rookie mistakes, like she did at Indy, but she's also going to do some good things."
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