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Danica humbled by struggles in stock cars

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

JOLIET, Ill. -- Those who know Danica Patrick mainly for racy photo shoots and commercials are seeing something decidedly different in her public persona these days: humility.

For a high-profile driver trying to make the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR, responding to high expectations by running outside the top 20 is a formula for modesty.

"I just have a lot to learn," Patrick said. "I don't want to make excuses. It's hard. So I think it's been OK. I don't know what else to say. I'm learning. I'm learning what I'm supposed to be doing, I'm learning with people watching -- which is hard. But it's just the way it is and I'm lucky that people are watching."

Patrick finished 24th in Friday night's Nationwide series race at Chicagoland Speedway, her best finish in five starts in NASCAR's second-tier series this season. Despite her tough transition, Patrick remains upbeat that she'll eventually have success.

Even if it's going to take more time than she might have thought going into the season.

"I'm starting to realize this is really challenging, it's really hard," Patrick said. "And I need to not be so hard on myself and I need to just stay upbeat and take every lap as an improvement from the one before and just keep marching forward. I feel kind of bad that it's not more amazing out there, and I'm not higher up and it's more entertaining for fans and it's a better story. But it's just very hard, and I think it speaks volumes about how good these drivers are in stock cars, and how challenging it is."

In a sport where a driver and crew chief need precise, clear communication to make a car handle properly, Patrick doesn't even really speak the language yet. Making suspension adjustments on an Indy car has little or nothing to do with making suspension adjustments on a stock car, so Patrick can't do much to help crew chief Tony Eury Jr. find the right setup at this point.

"Is it a spring, is it the camber, is it the bar, is it geometry? I don't have any idea," Patrick said. "No idea. So I'm not very good at helping Tony Jr. go in a certain direction. All I can say is what the car is doing. I wish I could help out more with that, but that's just going to come with time."

Although some established NASCAR drivers expressed annoyance about the amount of attention Patrick received at the beginning of the season, nobody's really knocking her for not running up front in stock cars right away.

But some wonder if she'll have to commit full time to NASCAR -- and give up on IndyCar -- to make the most of her talents.

"Right now, she's very limited because she's still committed to the IRL schedule," Kurt Busch said. "This is just a work in progress. We'll have to wait and see the final product when she decides what road she's going to go down."

Busch expects Patrick to eventually make a full-time move to NASCAR -- "She'll probably have a one-hour ESPN prime-time special when she wants to announce it," he joked -- and expects her to perform better once she does.

"I think once she commits full-time to NASCAR, she'll have a better understanding of the flow and the feel, not just with the schedule, not just of the race car, but everything that has to happen," Busch said. "It's just not jumping in the car and wheeling it. You have to handle all the different areas of sponsor appearances, media requests and time with the team."

Adding to that argument is the sense that she has taken a step backward in IndyCar this season.

Patrick insists that her part-time NASCAR schedule isn't hurting her IndyCar efforts. And while she acknowledges that going to NASCAR full time probably would help her in the transition, she doesn't think it would make a huge difference.

"If you want to be really good at anything, you have to obviously centralize your focus," Patrick said. "But at this point in time, I have a tremendous amount to learn. If it was full-time would it be going better? Maybe. But it wouldn't be some big, dramatic -- I don't think -- difference."

Patrick intends to stick to her current plan through 2011.

"We're going to do the schedule like this for this year and next year, and then we'll sort of assess where we're at and what we want to do in the future," Patrick said. "And maybe it'll be more of both, maybe it'll be one or maybe it'll be the other. I'm really not sure."