Danica Patrick running her own race at Bristol

LOUDON, NH - JULY 14: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, stands by her car during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series F.W. Webb 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2012 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The banner hanging over the garage entrance at Bristol Motor Speedway proclaims the track as "THE LAST GREAT COLOSSEUM."

While that might sound like hyperbole, it's actually not much of an exaggeration. Even racing veterans will pause to snap a photo before walking down the steep banking to the infield - and that's when the track is quiet and empty.

When it's full? The atmosphere can become frenzied, with fans thirsting for the sight of angry drivers and twisted sheet metal like the ancient Romans craved a battle of gladiators.

On Saturday night, one of those Bristol gladiators will be Danica Patrick. The driver/celebrity/brand will become the first woman since Janet Guthrie in 1977 to enter a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol.

It will be a daunting task, and that's putting it lightly. Patrick will be making just her fourth Cup start and doing so in one of the most difficult situations imaginable for her.

Supposedly, this is all part of the plan. Before Patrick goes full-time Cup racing next year, Stewart-Haas Racing team owner Tony Stewart came up with the 10 most difficult races for his driver in hopes of her gaining experience.

"It's not going to be an easy day for her by any means, but it's not supposed to be," Stewart explained Friday. "We picked the hard tracks. You're going to have to run them at some point, so it might as well be while she's not racing for points this year."

Stewart said he just wants Patrick to finish the race. There was no mention of an ideal result because no one in the organization has any such expectations.

And how could they? She crashed in the Daytona 500, finished six laps down in the Southern 500 and was five laps down in the Coca-Cola 600. Her biggest weakness is short-track racing, so it seems inconceivable she could even finish in the top 25 Saturday night.

Though she's driving a car built by Hendrick Motorsports - NASCAR's best team - and powered by a Hendrick engine, Patrick was 47th out of 47 cars in both practices on Friday. She was as much as 5.5 mph off the pace.

Stewart insisted he's not at Bristol to be Patrick's cheerleader or babysitter, but to be a teammate. He can't tell a driver how to get around the track, he said; they have to figure it out for themselves.

In that regard, Stewart said this could be Patrick's most difficult challenge yet - even bigger than Darlington.

"It's supposed to be hard and it's supposed to be frustrating," Stewart said. "You're supposed to leave here scratching your head wondering, but that is part of the learning curve of joining this sport."

Here's the problem: Patrick still has much to learn in the Nationwide Series, where she's shown to be a 10th-to-15th-place driver. Sprint Cup is another matter entirely; even the backmarker drivers are talented racers with years of experience and know-how. Patrick will enter the Coliseum facing a bunch of lions, and she'll do so virtually unarmed.

That might embarrass some drivers, but Patrick has different goals for herself than everyone else does. The Bristol race is not about winning or even where she finishes; she just wants to finish, period.

"At this point in time, it's about gaining experience," she said. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so I'm sure [the tough races] will help in the long run."

It sounds crazy, but if Patrick finishes 35th and seven laps down, she and her team will likely consider it a success. Millions of race fans will mock that idea - they have a silly notion that Sprint Cup racing is about results - but Patrick will do her best to ignore the haters.

"As long as I can keep my head up and stay confident and stay looking forward and stay upbeat, I think [the Cup schedule] will serve that purpose," she said. "But there's always that chance that these are humbling moments, especially being at the tough tracks they are at and the tough races they are. Just have to focus on staying positive."

If she can do that, she will win. It will not be a victory in the traditional sense, but Patrick is running her own race.

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