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Danica, have at it and have a good time

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - NASCAR officials originally set the theme for this year's Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway last month when they told Sprint Cup Series drivers, "boys, have at it and have a good time." Officials said they were easing up on some on-track rules for drivers at Daytona to make racing more competitive and enjoyable for fans.

But after racing sensation Danica Patrick's announcement on Monday that her much-anticipated Nationwide Series debut has been bumped up one week earlier to Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 season-opener at Daytona, the main topic for Speedweeks now should be "girl, have at it."

Patrick initially was scheduled to make her Nationwide debut with JR Motorsports -- a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- in the February 20 race at California, but her schedule now has changed due to her stellar performance in the ARCA event at Daytona this past weekend.

Yes. "Go Daddy Girl" quickly is moving up the ranks and playing with the big boys on the high banks of Daytona, and it should be an entertaining affair.

"I think it's quite the arena to run my first Nationwide race," Danica Patrick said. "It's going to be a challenge."
Patrick's readiness to make her foray into NASCAR's second-tier series at Daytona will be the subject of much debate from now until the green flag waves for the 300-mile event.

"I think it's quite the arena to run my first Nationwide race," Patrick said. "It's going to be a challenge."

Patrick looked impressive in her stock car racing debut with a sixth-place finish in the 80-lap ARCA event at Daytona. She held her pace and avoided a rash of accidents until former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr. tapped her front fender and put her into a spin on the frontstretch just past the halfway point. Patrick rallied in the closing laps to become the highest finishing female at Daytona since Shawna Robinson recorded a second-place run in the 1999 ARCA race.

"It was good at the beginning; we were just kind of hanging out, and there was a lot of [cautions] obviously," Patrick said. "The car seemed like it was sliding around a bit more, and it feels like I got bumped into [turns] one and two.

"Then I kind of slid up the track, and I was a little loose in the kink anyway, which probably could have been from bumping behind in two. I just couldn't hang on. I went up the track a little, and I just got shuffled back."

Patrick said she wants to race more at Daytona after enjoying her ARCA experience there.

However, making her Nationwide debut at Daytona instead of California might pose more of a challenge for her than expected. With more than a dozen Sprint Cup regulars, including Earnhardt Jr., entered in the 300-mile event, can she hold up in the draft and avoid running into trouble?

Earnhardt Jr. seems to think she can do it.

"I really don't have the urge to give her a bunch of advice," Earnhardt Jr. said. "She's a smart racecar driver and probably has a great game plan already built up in her head. She doesn't need to have people telling her what to do so that she starts second-guessing herself."

With her enormous popularity and wide marketability, Patrick has been a racing icon since she began her IndyCar rookie season in 2005. Not only does Patrick hold the record as the only female to win an IndyCar race, but she also has graced Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue the past two years and continues to serve as a GoDaddy.com spokesperson. The 27-year-old appeared in two commercials for the web hosting company during the Super Bowl. She will guest star on the CBS television hit drama "CSI: NY" on Wednesday.

Patrick has been the center of attention in NASCAR for quite some time, but her Nationwide debut at Daytona has now made "Danica-mania" even bigger.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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