DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Greg Zipadelli met Danica Patrick just over a week ago, with very little time to prepare for their first test session together.
One day into testing at Daytona International Speedway and the two were off and running.
“She’s easy,” Zipadelli said as Thursday’s opening day of practice came to a close. “She’s easy to hang out with, to talk with, she gets along with all the guys. It’s just no drama, no drama at all.”
Patrick is officially a full-time NASCAR driver now with her Daytona 500 debut a mere six weeks away. She’ll run the race for new boss Tony Stewart, who has paired her with the crew chief who led Stewart to two of his three NASCAR championships.
Stewart and Zipadelli spent 10 seasons together at Joe Gibbs Racing, and were reunited last month when Stewart lured Zipadelli to Stewart-Haas Racing as competition director.
As part of his new job, Zipadelli will crew chief Patrick for the time being. She’s running a full Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports, and will run 10 Sprint Cup races for SHR in preparation for a full Cup schedule in 2013.
“We were trying to get Zippy hired as a competition director, but it really was a perfect opportunity for us because it’s hard to get a really good crew chief hired to only run 10 races,” Stewart said. “From a company standpoint, it made sense to have him since we had him in house anyway.”
But, more than anything, Stewart liked that Zipadelli has worked with rookies before.
Zipadelli guided Stewart beginning in 1999, when Stewart fled IndyCar for NASCAR. They won three races in Stewart’s rookie year, a total of 33 and two titles when Stewart left after 2008 to run his own team.
Zipadelli spent the past three years with Joey Logano, who replaced Stewart as a raw 18-year-old with much to learn about the fast-paced Cup Series.
“He has been a crew chief for the last 13 straight years,” Stewart said. “The last two guys he had both were rookies when they came in. So he’s familiar with this and the process of getting a rookie adapted to the car and knowing what to do to make them comfortable.”
Patrick appreciated Zipadelli’s patience through their first of three days of testing. Although she has 25 career Nationwide starts _ and four at Daytona, including her 2010 stock-car debut in an ARCA race _ she’s yet to compete in a Sprint Cup race and her debut will be the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.
“I feel respected, and I feel like he’s been very patient,” Patrick said. “Even the little things, getting here this morning and just kind of adjusting a belt a little bit and adjusting a throttle a little bit, he doesn’t look at me like I’m inexperienced and I should be comfortable right away or it should be right or the throttle doesn’t feel right or I should get used to it and be used to it.
“He investigates and says `No problem, let’s get it right,’ and makes me comfortable.”
Zipadelli certainly had his patience tested over his decade with Stewart, and it was evident when he’d had enough by the way he’d snap over the radio during a contentious in-race exchange. That reared a bit with Logano, particularly last season when Logano didn’t improve from a promising close to 2010.
But he’s aware he’s got to be easy with Patrick.
“I can be patient when I need to be, and this is the time. There’s a need to be patient right now,” Zipadelli said.
Patrick, though, gave no indication she plans to be patient this season.
She cited a popular YouTube video about a “Honey Badger” and its lack of regard for others as the approach she plans to take on the track this season. Patrick raced clean for most of the past two years, but tended not to push back when shoved on the track.
“The honey badger, he takes what he wants. And that’s how I’m going to be this year, like a honey badger,” she vowed.
Patrick wasn’t on Thursday as Stewart-Haas Racing focused only on single-car runs. The team doesn’t plan to draft until Friday, so her only excitement on the first day was missing the entrance to pit road at one point during an uneventful first run.
“She’s been relatively quiet,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., owner of her Nationwide team, “and that’s probably good for her to be able to come in here and work and get everything done she wants to get done and concentrate on her driving and concentrate on her new team and everybody.”
So feeling like a little kid on the first day of school, Patrick set out to begin the process of ensuring a successful Daytona 500 debut.
Because the SHR No. 10 team is new, she doesn’t yet have points to guarantee a spot in the 43-car field. But if Stewart gave her his 2011 points, she’d be locked in while he’d need to qualify based on speed or his champion’s provisional.
Stewart said he’s undecided which route he’ll take.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence that even in the worst-case scenario, we’ve got the right driver that can get this car in the race, no problem,” he said. “But we’re working through that and trying to get that finalized and trying to figure out our options to make sure we give her the best opportunity to get in the Daytona 500 and get her all the experience that we can get her.”
Patrick, who led 13 laps here in July’s Nationwide race, isn’t worried.
“Obviously it’s the biggest race of the year, I’d really like to run well and I don’t just want to be here. I want to run well,” she said. “For this one at Daytona, I think there’s a real opportunity.”
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