Danica Patrick to Make NASCAR Debut at California MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Danica Patrick will
ease her way into NASCAR by skipping the Nationwide Series opener at
Daytona International Speedway in favor of a less-stressful debut one
week later at California.

The IndyCar star is still working on piecing
together a 13-race schedule for JR Motorsports in NASCAR’s second-tier
series, but announced Thursday she’s marked the Feb. 20 race at Auto
Club Speedway for her debut.

JR Motorsports also will field a car for Patrick in the Feb. 27 race at Las Vegas.

Although Patrick will make her stock-car debut
in the Feb. 6 ARCA opener at Daytona, she will not attempt the
Nationwide race. The opener is usually stacked with NASCAR’s top
talent, and Sprint Cup drivers have won nine of the last 10 Nationwide
races at Daytona. The lone exception? Martin Truex Jr., who won in 2005
in JR Motorsports car.

“The race is basically a Cup race, some 30 odd
drivers in Cup run in it,” she said. “So, is that the right time for me
to start or not? You only get one grand opening, so I’ve heard. We want
it to be the right opportunity.”

Patrick made her first appearance with new
boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. since announcing a two-year contract last week
to try NASCAR for JR Motorsports, the team owned in combination by Rick
Hendrick
, Earnhardt, his sister, Kelley, and their cousin, Tony Eury Jr.

Sitting on a stage at JR Motorsports flanked
by her new team, she fielded questions from reporters before it was
opened up to two preselected fans in attendance, as well as one
question submitted through Facebook.

“I don’t ever think I’ve seen as much power up on stage in NASCAR as I do today,” Kelley Earnhardt said.

She wasn’t lying. This partnership combines
the most marketable drivers in America’s top two racing series, and
with it will come a tremendous amount of attention. Patrick, who is
used to a low-key IndyCar schedule, joked that she might have to buy a
private plane since there were race fans waiting for her when she
landed at the Charlotte airport.

Already the pressure is on: one fan in
attendance asked Patrick who will win first in 2010, Earnhardt, JRM
driver Kelly Bires or Patrick?

“It’s probably not going to be me,” she joked.

Patrick is approaching this new venture as an
adventure. She signed a three-year contract extension earlier this
month with Andretti Autosport that will keep her racing full-time in
IndyCar, where she is the face of the open-wheel series and relied upon
to help boost its popularity.

The 27-year-old Patrick, who has just one
victory and 16 top-five finishes in five IndyCar seasons, said she’s
still got a long list of goals for that series — including winning the
Indianapolis 500.

“I still love IndyCar, and I still want to
win the Indy 500 — I really want to,” she said. “I had a feeling years
ago that I’m going to win this race, and I still think I will.”

But the lure of NASCAR, which offers
substantial moneymaking opportunities and an opportunity for many
racers aging out of open-wheel to extend their career, was too much to
ignore. She has backing from sponsor GoDaddy.com, which will sponsor
her IndyCar team as well, and a partnership with NASCAR’s most popular
driver in Earnhardt and powerful owner in Hendrick.

She’s had only one real test in a stock-car,
last week in Florida, but will go directly to Daytona to participate in
the three-day ARCA test this weekend.

Patrick is being careful with expectations.

“You’ve got to take things in small steps.
Baby steps,” she said. “Lets see if I like it. At this point in time, I
like it, but what if I didn’t? Then I really look silly. If I like it,
OK. And if not, then not. And that’s OK, too.”

Patrick’s team will be led by crew chief Tony
Eury Jr., who spent several high-stress seasons with Earnhardt before
he was fired at Hendrick in late May. He’s now back with his cousin at
JR Motorsports, where he was given partial ownership and yet another
high-profile crew chief position.

He said he’s up for the challenge that will
come with helping Patrick, who will try to join Tony Stewart and Juan
Pablo Montoya
as the only open-wheel drivers to find consistent
success. Stewart, a former IndyCar champion, is a two-time NASCAR
champion, while Montoya, a former CART champion and Formula One driver,
made the Chase for the Sprint Cup this past season, his third in NASCAR.

Others have not been so lucky: Three-time
IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. has yet to find consistency, while
reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti lasted just a few months in
NASCAR before returning to open-wheel.

Eury said they will keep the goals modest for this season.

“If we finish in the top 15 on a weekly
basis, and her confidence is up, and we’re happy with the results,
that’s where we’ve got to look,” he said.