By The Associated Press
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Chicagoland Speedway is about the closest thing Danica Patrick has to a home track in NASCAR.
Although the 1.5-mile oval on the outskirts of Chicago’s southwest suburbs didn’t play a part in her early racing career — it didn’t open until 2001 — it’s only about 100 miles away from her hometown of Rockford, Ill.
That means she’ll have plenty of family and friends here for Sunday’s NASCAR Nationwide race.
“As a kid, I loved going into the city, downtown Chicago,” Patrick said before Saturday’s practice. “It’s a beautiful place. I know we’re a little bit away from there, but I’ve got some friends coming out to the track this weekend, so it’ll be a couple extra people than normal. But it’s close to home, and that’s good, and I’ll see a few familiar faces.”
And based on her 10th-place run last June, she’ll also have a shot at a pretty good finish. Patrick was second-fastest in Saturday afternoon’s final practice session.
As Patrick continues her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR, she said she’s most comfortable on intermediate-length tracks with banked turns such as Chicagoland.
Although racing a stock car is much different than racing an IndyCar at any track, Patrick said the way a stock car handles on a track such as Chicagoland is the most similar sensation to what she experienced in Indy racing.
In addition to running a full Nationwide Series schedule this season, she’s also running part-time in the Sprint Cup Series. She recently added a track that’s similar to Chicagoland — Kansas Speedway — to her Sprint Cup schedule.
“For me, I feel like mile-and-a-half, bigger tracks, and the higher-grip tracks of those, I feel like there’s just a little bit more of a similarity to where I came from,” Patrick said. “With the way that it loads up in the corner and the way that you can feel car pick up G-forces in the corner and you can feel the (suspension) load. As opposed to the slippery or flatter tracks, slower tracks.”
Patrick acknowledges that she isn’t yet as comfortable at short tracks or tracks without banking. But she said she felt better when Kasey Kahne, a fellow driver from an open-wheel background, told her that he had a tough time learning flat tracks as well — not that it showed much last week, when Kahne won the Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire.
“It didn’t really show that he struggles at short tracks, just because of the fact that he won,” Patrick said. “But he said that they took the longest for him to get used to as well. Both of us kind of having our open-wheel backgrounds, I think that it was almost a relief sometimes to hear, to understand a little bit more why the short tracks are a little bit harder.”
While plenty of established NASCAR stars started out in open-wheel racing, Patrick said drivers who took the traditional path from short-track racing to stock cars might be better prepared for some tracks.
“That’s where a lot of people came from,” Patrick said. “A lot of drivers come from short track racing, local short track racing, and that’s just a real comfort zone for them. I come from much more of the mile-and-a-half, 200-mile-an-hour speeds. So they’re a comfort zone for me.”
The Nationwide race at Chicagoland was run at night last year, while Sunday’s will be run in the heat of the day. Patrick doesn’t think it will have a major effect on how teams set up and adjust their cars.
“I don’t think it’ll make a huge difference,” Patrick said. “The car does sort of transition through a little bit of changes as it gets cooler and darker. It’s usually not so far out of the ballpark that you can’t make little adjustments throughout the race and keep up with it or fix a problem.”
Patrick conceded that running under forecast sunny skies and temperatures in the high 90s could make things more slippery on Sunday.
“There could be more opportunities, I suppose, for yellows happening during the race, because it’s a little bit more challenging conditions,” Patrick said. “But the work is done (in practice) today. Hopefully we do good work today, we unload well and are able to fine tune.”