Danica Patrick in NASCAR driver's seat at Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
As the Go Daddy diva, Danica Patrick is accustomed to having the eyes of the racing world upon her, but never like this.
The first woman to win an IndyCar event revved up NASCAR's world during Daytona's Speedweeks, first posting the fastest practice times, then becoming the first woman to qualify for the pole position in any NASCAR Sprint Cup event.
"I love it when people put me on the radar. I do," says Patrick, who seems to be absorbing, not avoiding the attention. "I definitely think it's good for [my] team and it's good for Go Daddy. It's good for NASCAR. It's good for the race itself."
Turns out, what's good for Danica is great for NASCAR.
"Coming to Daytona, if we'd have tried to plot things out, I think we all would have said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if Danica Patrick was on the pole?' That would have been among the best things we could have hoped for," says Barry Landis, lead producer for Fox Sports.
"Hopefully, she will attract a whole new audience. What she's done so far has been historic. Every day she's on the track, she takes a great step forward. Each day the story seems to unfold, and it's our job to report that and keep it fresh."
"She's a marketing phenomenon," says Steve Phelps, NASCAR senior vice president and chief marketing officer, "and as the sanctioning body, we're thrilled she's brought her brand and her personality and her competitiveness to the race track. The great thing about Danica is the day she arrived in NASCAR, she brought her own significant fan base with her. Her fan base cuts across male, female, young, old.
"Just look at the media coverage she's been able to garner since last Sunday. USA Today front page, above the fold, GMA [Good Morning America], CBS This Morning and on and on. We're outside of just the sports pages in print, radio, television. Having her come over to the biggest stage and run a full season for a championship in Sprint Cup, we think, is going to be very meaningful."
She's a Twitter darling
Patrick is NASCAR's most-followed driver on Twitter with more than 718,000 followers and counting. Her trackside merchandise sales were up 88 percent in the past year and TV ratings for Daytona 500 qualifying were up 6 percent -- though NASCAR admits it's impossible to calculate what percentage of that is attributable to Patrick.
Patrick, 30, doesn't avoid the concept that she is a positive role model -- a woman holding her own in the traditionally macho world of auto racing. It's a particularly interesting dynamic because her brand also depends on a sexy edginess.
"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl," she says. "I've had the experience with mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, listening to them say the reason why they're here as a family today is because of me. Whether it brings the girls out, the guys out, whatever it is, I don't care. That's nice to hear."
Yes, but can she win?
Critics -- and there are many -- are quick to point out that Patrick's high profile comes without merit. She has yet to win a NASCAR event. For that matter, she's yet to come close.
Patrick was no better than 17th in any of her 10 Sprint Cup races last year and has one top-five finish (a fourth) in 58 career Nationwide Series starts. Her only other pole came at Daytona in last season's Nationwide opener, a race in which she finished 38th.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski believes Patrick still has to earn her stripes -- and he doesn't mean the yellow stripe on the rear bumper that denotes her rookie status.
"People ask me how I feel about Danica all the time," he said. "I don't think of Danica as a female race car driver. I think of her as a rookie and someone that hasn't won races or proved that she is competitive."
That could all be changing, given her experience and improved equipment at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, supplier of cars for five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
Stewart-Haas had three of the first five cars in qualifying. At 196.434 mph, Patrick was faster than co-owner and 2011 Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart (196.292) as well as teammate Ryan Newman (195.946), winner of the 2008 Daytona 500. Stewart will start Sunday's race alongside Patrick on the first row.
"[The pole] is a huge accomplishment," Stewart said. "It's not like it's been 15 or 20 years she's been trying to do this. It's her second trip to Daytona in a Cup car."
Still, winning a pole doesn't equate with winning a race. In fact, NASCAR teams put different degrees of emphasis in preparation. Patrick said winning a pole is 10 percent about the driver, 90 percent about the car and those who prepare it.
"I told Danica it's more than 10 percent driver," countered her crew chief, Tony Gibson. "You can put a good product out there, but if you don't have the person to drive it . . . it can really damage your day. It's more than 10 percent, I promise you. It's 50/50."
Earning the Daytona pole provided a welcome change for Patrick, who in recent weeks has been hammered with questions about her budding relationship with Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"I don't mind answering questions about the other stuff, but I get that it's not about racing," Patrick said. "It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's going on on the track.
"I've been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things," said Patrick, who on Thursday became the first female to start a Budweiser Duel event from the pole. "I really just hope that I don't stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make."
To quote the tag line from Patrick's Go Daddy commercials: "See what happens next."