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Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson respond to Richard Petty at Daytona

NASCAR driver Danica Patrick poses for a picture

NASCAR driver Danica Patrick poses for a picture in New York on Jan. 16, 2014. Credit: AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson believes that seven-time champ Richard Petty is premature in pooh-poohing Danica Patrick's potential to win at the sport's elite level.

"You need at least five years to figure out what's going on, understand these cars and be competitive, regardless whether it's Danica, a male driver, whoever it is," said Johnson at Thursday's NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway.

Johnson made 72 Nationwide Series starts in four seasons (1998-2001) before his first full Sprint Cup season for Hendrick Motorsports in 2002.

"My fifth year in a stock car was [my first] in the [No.] 48 at Hendrick Motorsports and I didn't even know where the gas pumps were at all the tracks," said Johnson, who captured his first Cup championship in 2006. "It was a running joke on the 48 team that I didn't even know where to put gas in the car.

"It's [about] experience. When you come off the truck and start a race weekend you have to know the line you're going to run, where you're braking points are, [where to] turn in, [when to be] on-throttle. If you need an hour of your two-hour practice session to find your way, you've just lost an hour to the field."

Responding publicly on Thursday for the first time to Petty's comments that she is not capable of winning, Patrick said the opinions of the seven-time champion, who won 200 races during his NASCAR career, are just that - his opinion.

"People have said things in the past and they're going to say things in the future," said Patrick, 31. "I still say the same thing: Everyone is entitled to their opinion. People are going to judge what he said - whether they judge it well or not - and I'm just not going to."

Petty told reporters in Toronto this week that Patrick could only win Sprint Cup races "if everybody else stayed home." He said, "If she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she showed up at a race track. This is a female deal that's driving her. There's nothing wrong with that, because that's good PR for me . . . She has helped draw attention to the sport."

Patrick, who won the pole and finished eighth in last year's Daytona 500, failed to post a top-10 finish in any of the subsequent 35 races during her Sprint Cup rookie season.

She said that Petty's comments don't consciously serve as motivation.

"You can't try any harder in the car," she said. "You're doing everything you can. Maybe, subconsciously, there's some motivation. But I can't tell. I'm giving it my all every time I get in the car.

"Everybody can have their opinion. The people that matter the most to me are my team, my sponsors and those little three-year-old kids who want to run up to you and say they want to be like you. That's the stuff that I really focus on."

Brad Keselowski, NASCAR's 2012 Sprint Cup champion, gave Petty's comments mixed reviews.

"You've got to respect The King for what he's done for the sport," Keselowski said. "And he makes some pretty strong points. [But] it's a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race. I wouldn't want my name behind that comment. So, we'll probably give that a little more time and see how that plays out because there are races where I think [she might win]."

Keselowski indicated those races were specifically restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

"I think the time will come when she will win a race," said Aric Almirola, 29, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports and is still seeking his first Sprint Cup victory after 107 starts. "It isn't easy. Look at guys like Denny Hamlin. He goes all year until [the last race] at Homestead without winning. Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. goes all year and doesn't win a race."

Patrick, who won once in 115 IZOD Indy Car starts (2005-11), readily admits she is still learning the ropes at Stewart-Haas Racing. Prior to her rookie season in Sprint Cup, Patrick made 58 Nationwide Series starts with seven top-10 finishes.

"Stock cars are not my background," she said. "I still feel like I'm figuring stock cars out and will for a long time. There's still stuff when I look underneath the hood I don't know what I'm looking at."

Johnson noted that Patrick's learning curve is not atypical for an open-wheel driver attempting to make the transition to stock cars.

"We all have the ability to see open-wheel drivers come into NASCAR and, outside of Tony [Stewart], we haven't seen crazy success," Johnson said. "I'm still interested in watching a stock car guy go in that [other] direction."


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