- Associated Press - Monday, May 14, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Danica Patrick raced 513 laps around Darlington Raceway last weekend.

What did you do?

Chances are, if you’re an ardent NASCAR fan, you might have snickered at the very mention of her name. You probably grumbled about the attention she received all weekend, and your level of anger likely grew every time her bright GoDaddy green car was shown on TV.

It’s OK; Patrick learned to ignore the haters long ago.

If she paid attention, she never would have chased her dreams of being a professional race car driver. If she listened to the criticism, she probably would have hung up her firesuit years ago.

And now, with Twitter? The vile spewed at her in 140-character bursts, well, a weaker woman might crawl under the covers and never come out again.

But that’s not Patrick. She strong and she’s brave and she rolled into Darlington, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway and the track known historically for separating the men from the boys, and didn’t back down from the challenge.

She’s not celebrated for any of that, at least not among the majority of racing fans. They instead fixate on her one win in 115 IndyCar starts, and now her struggles in NASCAR.

Sure, her progress in NASCAR has been slow, but people seem to forget that racing cars is hard. If just anyone could do it, that guy zipping down the interstate with his flashy rims could have run at Darlington on Saturday night.

Patrick didn’t pick Darlington for her second Sprint Cup Series start. The bright idea belonged to Tony Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion generally regarded as one of the most versatile drivers on the planet. Even so, his 13-year resume lacks a Cup win in 20 career starts at Darlington.

But in Stewart’s desire to get Patrick ready for an eventual full-time move to the Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing, her team owner picked some of the hardest tracks in the series for her 10-race schedule this season.

So that’s how she got to “The Track To Tough Too Tame,” where she moved back and forth between the Nationwide and Cup garages. She picked up her first career “Darlington stripe” in her first practice session, but so did five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who proudly tweeted a picture of his damaged car after smacking the wall in Friday’s practice.

Johnson went on to win Saturday night’s Cup race.

Nobody thought Patrick would compete for a victory, and Stewart did a masterful job all weekend of lowering expectations to the point he basically said he didn’t expect anything at all.

“I want her to just as run as many laps as possible,” he said. “The more time she can spend on track the more experience she is going to get. The good thing running both divisions … and not have too many problems, then it’s a lot of valuable experience that when we come back here next year, doing it full-time, it should be very valuable.”

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