Danica Patrick steered her No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet into the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage at Texas Motor Speedway Friday as she has done dozens of times at dozens of race tracks in her short stock-car career.
But when her crew lifted up the hood she found herself staring at a tribute to her one-time sparring buddy Dan Wheldon.
Patrick had ordered the team to paint her hood black with the words “Lionheart” in white letters across its width to honour Wheldon who was killed Oct. 16 in the IZOD IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
She said that at first it took her aback a little, but then she said she found it strangely comforting.
“It feels comforting in a way, to be honest,” she said. “I kind of feel like I have a little angel sitting there.
“I tell you when they popped the hood open to work on the car and I saw ‘Lionheart’ and that is all I have to stare at while I am sitting in my car waiting ... it is a cool thing. It’s a privilege, really, it is a little comfort.”
Patrick announced earlier in the week that she would also wear a special tribute helmet in Texas during the race. She will donate that helmet to the danwheldon.com charity auction, with proceeds going to Wheldon’s wife Susie and her two young children.
“It is my hope that we can do everything possible to support Susie and the kids in this very tragic time,” she said.
But make no mistake, this is also a time for Patrick to move on; to move from the horrible aftermath of the Las Vegas crash to her new career in NASCAR.
And getting back into a race car was the medicine she needed to help her get over those memories.
“It was nice to be able to get back in a race car,” Patrick said. “But it was also really nice just to have a couple of weeks off and create some space between that weekend and those emotions and getting back out on the race track.”
She said that a big part of her recovery was the fact that she would be getting into a race car that is a whole lot safer on a big oval track like Texas or Las Vegas than the IndyCar Dallara.
“It does feel safer,” Patrick said. “It felt safer two years ago the first day I got behind the wheel (of a stock car). There is a level of bravery that you have in a car without the wheels being exposed that if you slide up or move around the track a little bit that you are really just going to bump door to door or fender to fender.
“It doesn’t mean that there can’t be big accidents, and things can’t happen but obviously a lot of the serious accidents in IndyCar come from head injuries. So being covered like we are (in NASCAR) gives me a level of comfort. So I am pleased to have a roof over my head this weekend.”
Patrick said she does hope that IndyCar bosses take what happened at Las Vegas and turn it into something good — like making the open wheel cars and the racing safer.
“In 2006 Paul Dana passed away at Homestead in the morning warmup, and as a result we stopped doing morning warmups and that was a good change,” she said. “And that is the sort of thing that I hope can come from (Wheldon’s crash).
“It is a tragedy and it’s terrible ... but hopefully everyone can learn and be better for it and be safer from it. That is my hope.”
For now, though, Patrick is full throttle in NASCAR, even announcing Friday that in her Sprint Cup debut at the 2012 Daytona 500 she will be driving the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet.
She is looking forward to starting over.
“This really is like the first day of the rest of my life,” she said. “I don’t have to think about what IndyCar has to do (to make the series better) any more.
“They still have great race car drivers. And they still put on great events. And they have the Indy 500.
“But I am all in here in NASCAR. And now this is my focus.”
There will not be a Chevrolet with the stylized No. 3 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next season, says Richard Childress Motorsports owner Richard Childress. There had been speculation the No. 3 car made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt would be brought back for Austin Dillon — grandson of Childress — who is expected to make his Cup debut next season. But Dillon will use the No. 3 in the Nationwide Series. .... The No. 67 Go Canada Racing Ford Mustang is not entered in Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge Nationwide event but the team’s hauler is at the track carrying the No. 27 CertainTeed Mustang driven by J.J. Yeley.