All the buildup, anticipation and avalanche of media coverage will take a three-to-four hour breather when Danica Patrick does what’s earned her this latest onslaught: drive her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, and lead the field to green in this year’s running of the Daytona 500.
This is nothing new, but rather the continuation of something that has been a staple of Patrick’s racing career. It just happens to occur in NASCAR’s biggest race, and as Patrick writes the latest chapter in her history as the first woman to earn the pole position in the sport’s top division, the Sprint Cup Series.
Since qualifying in the top spot last Sunday, Patrick has embarked on a several-hour media tour de force. The questions she's asked rarely focus on her driving. Until this week, the biggest Danica topic was her new relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Entering race day, the biggest story was on a crash Saturday in a Nationwide Series that injured at least 28 fans. But when the green flag drops on Sunday, all eyes will be on Danica.
The difference between the Patrick of old and today's version is the newer one appears to be more open and less guarded. Whereas her public persona was evident in a swath of endorsements — at the moment, Patrick has 15 personal endorsement deals beyond the team ones of GoDaddy, Tissot watches and PEAK Motor Oil — her answers at the track were not as forthcoming.
Now, the answers are flowing as freely as the waters on Lake Lloyd in Daytona’s infield.
“I think I’m just less guarded and I hope it doesn’t come back to bite me,” she told Yahoo! Sports. “Overall, it’s just easier. I just think I’m not so worried about what people might say.”
During her seven-year IndyCar career, the driver often was overshadowed by the brand. That’s to both her and her marketing team’s credit, if to the annoyance of the rest of the field. Suggestive endorsements from her supporters pushed Patrick onto the national stage in a different light; we were seeing someone who used her celebrity and prominence to get deals other drivers might dream of but could never garner.
Back-to-back appearances in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (2008-09) didn’t help the negative stereotypes. While they clearly benefited Patrick, they didn’t necessarily benefit her series.
Those within IndyCar wouldn’t admit it publicly, but there was a Danica-first mentality that permeated throughout the paddock. It all began, of course, when Patrick finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and beat the winner, the late Dan Wheldon, to the next week’s SI cover. Wheldon then showed up at the next race with a homemade T-shirt that read, “I actually won the Indianapolis 500.”
Patrick's time in IndyCar ran its course. Her two team owners had mixed reactions when she won the Daytona pole. Bobby Rahal, who discovered her, tweeted “Congrats to DP. Now finish the job!” Michael Andretti, for whom Patrick drove for five years countered, “Congrats to @GoDaddy for the pole in Daytona!” -- only crediting the sponsor.
Still, Patrick’s detractors refuse to acknowledge her skill as a race car driver. She finished second as an 18-year-old in England’s prestigious Formula Ford Festival in 2000 and, while spending two years in an open-wheel training ground called Formula Atlantic, netted several poles and podium finishes against a very deep field.
When she did make it to IndyCar, she had some standout drives, but her most famous results were achieved with better fuel mileage than her competitors. Her fourth-place finish in that 2005 Indianapolis 500 vaulted her to national prominence; her win at the 2008 race in Motegi, Japan, was the first for a woman in that series.
But other races were better reflections of her talent. Patrick charged from last to third before contact in Milwaukee in 2007, and she put up runner-up finishes at Texas and Homestead in 2010, fighting side-by-side with the eventual race winners. She finished seventh, sixth and fifth in IndyCar’s final points tallies from 2007-09 in a field of more than 20 cars, not bad results by any stretch of the imagination.
It was always natural, then, that Danica would seek the brighter lights and greater marketing and endorsement value of NASCAR. She began her dalliance with racing selected events from 2010-11, before making the full-time switch last year, spending part of the year in the lower Nationwide Series.
Patrick's 2012 Nationwide season netted only four top-10 finishes in 33 starts, but she still ranked 10th in points at year’s end. She also made her Sprint Cup debut, with one top-20 finish in 10 starts.
So the media attention is nothing new, but the mass amount that was born at Indy in 2005 has resurfaced this week thanks to this accomplishment. Denny Hamlin, the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota, acknowledged this on Tuesday’s Dan Patrick Show.
“For the accomplishments she’s had, yes,” Hamlin said, when asked whether Patrick gets too much attention. “But what’s she’s done for the sport … people are willing to forgive that.”
Starting from pole helps, but it is no guarantee of success in this race. A pole-sitter hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000 and hasn’t scored a top-five finish since 2001 (Bill Elliott in fifth).
Much of this pole is down to Danica's equipment, where horsepower plays a greater role than outright driving ability, a fact she is keen to mention in interviews.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing: Getting the most out of my car and myself,” she told Dan Patrick on Tuesday. “Here at Daytona, it’s very much about the car. Lucky enough, I have the fastest ride out there, going flat and turning left.”
Of the six fastest qualifiers on Sunday, five have Hendrick-built Chevrolet engines in their cars, including Patrick’s two Stewart Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Come Sunday, the challenge for Patrick is to begin validating the hype by staying out of trouble (easier said than done), making a series of clean pit stops, and remaining in contention to secure a strong finish in the race to kick-start her first full season in Sprint Cup.
Tony DiZinno writes for NBCSports.com and covers sports car racing for the American Le Mans Series.
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