Can Danica Patrick, at 30, steer from NASCAR novelty to winner?

FONTANA, Calif. - Danica Patrick turned 30 this past weekend.

That might be an age that an attractive media personality who markets her good looks would celebrate with mixed emotions. Of course, it's an age that a professional race car driver would treat as the prime of her career.

Three seasons into the Patrick-NASCAR experiment, there is still a dual aura about her. We are still waiting to find out whether she is more one than the other.

On her birthday weekend, at Auto Club Speedway, the former Indycar racer continued her student driving in the Nationwide series, suffering some bad luck with a damaged radiator less than halfway through the Royal Purple 300.

"I've got to believe things will turn better for me," said the driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet, whose 35th -place finish was the latest disappointment.

This season, for the first time, she is running a full schedule of Nationwide races (best finish in five races: 12th), while mixing in 10 Sprint Cup rides. A couple of years ago, when Patrick first dabbled in NASCAR amid rumors she was planning a jump to stockcars, there was considerable buzz. The novelty has worn off, but the curiosity remains. Can she get good at this?

Maybe even she wonders.

"It's all about learning," she said in pre-race mode Friday. "I'm more confident in certain techniques I've used out there.

"The good things I'm doing don't necessarily materialize every day ... I definitely look for little victories along the way. I hope I'm doing better."

She seems to be an eager learner, a series newbie who welcomes a spotter in her ear during a race, or tips from another driver.

"Some drivers like to hear nothing -- it's like, 'Shut up and let me drive the car,'" she said. "I want as much information as I can possibly have."

Of course, it's still early for her in the process. She hasn't been to all the tracks, yet. She raced in Fontana twice in 2010, but hadn't been back in 18 months.

This vaguely reminds you of Michael Jordan-tries-baseball, the part where he was settled in as a minor leaguer. There would be periodic updates on his situation. Everyone would shrug, go back to their daily lives and wait for something resembling real news, like a breakout show of power, or a hitting streak.

For Patrick, news would be a string of high finishes, or an actual victory, like the one she ultimately notched in an Indycar in Japan in 2008. Many know her as the first female to win a major open wheel race. Fewer know that her fourth-place finish in a Nationwide race last year in Las Vegas is the highest for a female in a high-level NASCAR race.

In the meantime, the hubbub has subsided. What remains is a vague sense that most NASCAR fans are skeptical, maybe even hostile toward her. But that's NASCAR, where hostility is half the fun.

I spent 30 minutes walking through fan areas Saturday before the race, and saw just three people wearing "Danica" gear. One of them, at least, was a full fan club unto himself.

Al Manalo, 39, of Las Vegas, was decked out in official, green-and-black jacket, cap and backpack.

"I started following her in 2005," he said. "She was doing pretty well, and of course, she caught my eye. She's really beautiful.

"I'm excited to see her (in NASCAR). It makes sense, from a marketing standpoint."

He laughed when I asked him what reaction he gets, wearing the colors.

"I get razzed all the time," he said. "It's OK. It's the nature of the beast."

Patrick clearly knows what the nature of the beast is.

Asked Friday how she measures her progress, she said, "That's easy. It's just results. That's the way the game goes. When I started, it was, like, 30th. Now it's top 10s."

She's got some time to get there. Not that the jurists are waiting. Happy birthday, anyway.

(Contact Gregg Patton at gpatton(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Must credit The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif.

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