HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Danica Patrick's husband gave her a stock car last Christmas. She threw a party to show it off to her friends.
"But in order to go in the garage and see it, you had to drink a shot of moonshine," Patrick said. "I thought that was such a NASCAR thing to do."
Patrick is embracing her crossover from IndyCar racing to NASCAR, whether it's the technical adaptation or historical knowledge of the sport that originated with bootleggers modifying cars so they could outrun the law while hauling corn whiskey.
Patrick has said farewell to IndyCar racing after seven years as the most successful female driver in history. She's making a career change to NASCAR. The cars might be harder to handle, but the popularity isn't, and the magnetic Patrick is sure to be queen of the racetrack in no time.
Fans, even those soaked by intermittent rain showers, were glad to see the petite star, and she was glad to be here. The learning curve hasn't been as painful as she expected because everyone it seems -- even her competition -- wants her to succeed.
"The easiest part has been the people and the help I get from drivers," she said. "The mood is positive, optimistic, encouraging. They've been patient."
Patrick, not always as cheerful as such NASCAR corporate-correct mainstays as Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, is feeling more secure and relaxed about her decision.
"I feel like I'm home," she said. "It feels like I'm a kid racing go-karts again. It's fun -- the people, the style of racing. I feel really comfortable and happy."
NASCAR is overjoyed, especially as it tries to restore TV ratings and stave off dwindling sponsor support during weak economic times. Patrick, who earned about $13 million last year in prize and endorsement money, brings more than a pretty face and oft-photographed body to a gearhead culture. She's good. She's smart. She's tough. A Patrick handshake will make you feel sorry for her steering wheels.
"She's already exceeded expectations," said Rusty Wallace, former Cup champion and an ESPN commentator. "She's had a lot of top-10 finishes, and I didn't think she'd get there so soon."
Patrick, 29, has competed sporadically for two seasons in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, steppingstone to the premier Sprint Cup Series. Entering Homestead, her best finish was fourth in Las Vegas. She had a chance to win at Daytona in July but got caught up in an accident near the finish and placed 10th.
"She hauled (butt) -- that was her coming-out party," said Elliott Sadler, who has raced side-by-side with Patrick this year.
Next year, she will compete full-time in 33 Nationwide races for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team and enter 10 Sprint Cup races for Tony Stewart's team, making her debut in the Daytona 500. Patrick plans to move to Cup level in 2013.
Consider what Patrick is doing: IndyCars weigh 1,530 pounds, have open cockpits, wide tires, a low center of gravity, a strong downforce and 650-horsepower engines that reach speeds of 230 mph. Stock cars weigh 3,400 pounds, have roofs and 850-horsepower engines that reach speeds of 200 mph, but with less downforce they tend to slide around the track.
She's getting off a thoroughbred and onto a mule.
IndyCars rarely touch but NASCAR is a contact sport where bumping can be part of the strategy.
"Stock cars don't stop well, plus you're pack racing in close confines," said Dale Jarrett, former Cup champion and an ESPN commentator. "The shorter tracks -- like Richmond and Bristol -- will be more tricky for her than the 1.5-mile ovals because there's a lot of pushing and shoving and throwing the car around."
Talented drivers -- such as Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. -- have struggled with the switch. Hornish, three-time IndyCar series champ, switched in 2008 and just won his first Nationwide race last week. He rushed too quickly to the Cup level.
"I'm not saying one type of racing is more difficult than the other -- it's just that they are two different sports, like changing from basketball to football," Sadler said.
Patrick said safety wasn't an issue when she decided to move to NASCAR, which hasn't had a fatality since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. But it must have been in the back of her mind. Her teammate Paul Dana was killed in an accident at Homestead in 2006. On Oct. 16, Dan Wheldon died when his car went airborne and flipped at Las Vegas in Patrick's final race as a full-time IndyCar driver.
"It does feel safer," she said at a NASCAR event after driving a Wheldon tribute car. "Accidents happen, but having my head covered definitely adds a level of comfort."
In 2008, Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race at the Japan 300. Twice she came close to winning the Indy 500 (which she plans to race in again). She has the potential to do more groundbreaking in NASCAR, where no woman has won a Cup race.
She loves the challenge. She said that driving without the computerized telemetry data generated in IndyCar operations has awoken her instincts and taken her back to her roots as a scrappy girl racing go-karts in Illinois.
"It's been tough, but on the flip side," she said, "you get to drive the car the way it feels natural."