Danica Patrick's Darlington Debut: Can She Succeed In NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

On the way home from Darlington Raceway on Friday night, I was listening to Claire B. Lang's show on Sirius/XM's NASCAR channel. A man called in and praised Danica Patrick's performance in the Nationwide Series race – and deservedly so.

But when Lang asked him to predict how the No. 10 car would fare in tonight's Southern 500, the guy said he could see Patrick finishing in the top 10!

What the hell is wrong with people? Patrick has as much chance of finishing in the top 10 tonight as Tony Stewart does going a day without sarcasm.

That's an honest assessment of her chances. A prominent driver told me recently that the step up from Nationwide to Sprint Cup is like going from high school to the pros. There's a big difference, and for a driver without much stock car experience? Forget it.

But to her credit, Patrick is extremely realistic about her chances in tonight's race. It's just her fans who aren't.

"I just want to finish, which is going to be a challenge, I think," she said. "... Just getting to the end of the Cup race is going to be the accomplishment for me."

Here's the thing, though: When I tweet or write realistic things about Patrick's NASCAR performance, her fans and defenders go crazy. Out of all the drivers in NASCAR, no fan base seems more irrational than Patrick's Posse (I don't know if that's what they call themselves, but it seems appropriate).

Patrick's Posse is full of people who have some fantasy that Patrick is going to come into the Sprint Cup Series and be able to post top-20 finishes right away. That's not going to happen.

Of course, Patrick herself once had her expectations set too high. When she announced a part-time Nationwide Series schedule, she told reporters she expected to run in the top 15 every week.

It's taken awhile. Only now, in what would be the start of her second season by pure number of races (34), is she posting consistent top-15s in Nationwide.

Patrick is much more realistic about her chances these days. I can't recall a single thing she's said in the past year that wasn't an honest evaluation of her current NASCAR skill set.

She has adapted quickly to superspeedway racing, been solid on 1.5-mile tracks and has outright struggled on short tracks. That's fact.

But here's the thing so many people fail to realize: Patrick takes good care of her equipment, so she's more likely to be around for the finish. And in the Nationwide Series, if you finish, you have a chance for a good result (not so in Sprint Cup).

Let's reflect on what happened in the Nationwide Series race on Friday night for a moment. Patrick finished 12th – on the lead lap – and brought her car home without a single Darlington stripe. That's impressive given her lack of experience.

Since she'd never even seen the track until Friday morning – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took her around for a few laps in a pace car after NASCAR's rookie meeting – Patrick did well to keep the car in one piece and finish the race.

It's important to give credit where credit is due, and Patrick drove a solid, clean race last night. She said her only hope was for a "respectable night," and she had one.

But even she was a bit surprised by the result. When I asked her whether she thought her car would make it through the event without at least one Darlington stripe, she was honest.

"I really didn't," she said. "I thought that was just kind of something that happened as the tires wore on and something of an inevitable here."

Sprint Cup competition is much harder, though. There isn't one driver in the top 35 Patrick could out-run right now due to her lack of seat time, and she did well to qualify 38th out of 47 Cup cars.

With her unfamiliarity with the track, I had figured Patrick would qualify dead last (the driver's only other Cup race was Daytona, which doesn't translate at all).

That she beat nine drivers with much more experience – even if they were in inferior equipment – was notable. Even she thought so.

"The Cup qualifying, while I know I'm starting in the back, was a good step in the right direction," she said, referring to an improvement from her practice times.

But by the tweets I got from her nutty fans after trying to predict her qualifying effort, you would have thought I had just spit in a queen's face.

Now, I'll admit I've been critical of Patrick at times. I can relate to the fans who want to see good talent rewarded with good rides, and who find it frustrating to see someone struggle in great equipment after they haven't done much to earn the spot based on performance alone.

Plus, I still believe Patrick is going to be a hazard tonight at Darlington and will probably struggle immensely in a full-time Sprint Cup Series schedule next season (which I think is a mistake).

But let's also be honest and say she's beating expectations – the realistic ones – with some of her performances. She certainly has every tool and resource at her disposal to succeed in NASCAR, and I believe she'll eventually post top-20s in Cup.

Some fans will take that as an insult. I don't think it is. When you're driving Hendrick-built cars on a well-funded team and you have NASCAR champions coaching you, it's hard to fail.

"I mean, you can't buy that kind of help," she said. "I've been really fortunate I have such great people around me and so many people that have been on my side and offered advice. That's what allows me, I believe, to come to a place like Darlington that is challenging and have a decent night."

And if her fans ever calm themselves down and get realistic about Patrick's chances, everyone would be better off. Because of her celebrity, she's a huge story and will continue to be scrutinized by the media.

But she's not backing down from any of it.

"At this point in time, I'm here to work," she said after her solid Nationwide run. "And I still have work to do."

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