Danica: Daytona's darin' darlin'
DARLING OF DAYTONA: Danica Patrick (Chevrolet) certainly has a lot on her mind while watching practice at the Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2013. Image: AFP
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida - Danica Patrick grabbed a slice of history with her 2013 Daytona 500 pole, the first for a woman driver and it's ratcheted up interest in "The Great American Race" that will open Nascar's 2013 season.
While early Patrick buzz at Daytona focused on the confirmation of her romantic relationship with rival driver Ricky Stenhouse, all that changed with her pole-grabbing qualifying with some pundits now predicting that if she can win at Daytona it could mark a turning point for women in sport.
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The 30-year-old Patrick is no stranger to the spotlight. In five seasons on the Andretti team she became one of IndyCar's signature drivers and the first woman to win a race in the open-wheel series with her triumph at Japan's Twin Ring Motegi in 2008.
In 2005 she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 thanks to a refuel strategy and in 2009 she reached third spot on the Indy 500 podium.
She then made the jump to the hugely popular Nascar stock-car racing and in 2012 competed in 10 races in Nascar's elite Sprint Cup series.
Patrick knows that in a 500-mile (800km) race the advantage offered by a pole position start is slim - at best. "I do think it's going to be hard and I wouldn't consider myself a favorite to win," Patrick said. "Although, a fast car, you never know what can happen."
Nascar, a sport with roots in the American South, has gained an audience far beyond its stereotypically white rural spectator and lured international racers such as Colombian former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya.
Top races such as the venerable Daytona 500 can draw hundreds of thousands of spectators and the fan base is wooed by politicians courting "the Nascar vote". US presidential candidate Mitt Romney's difficulty in connecting with fans during one campaign trip to a race was widely interpreted as demonstrating that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Such a sport might not seem the best-suited for a barrier-breaking battle of the sexes but Danica-mania has dominated Daytona so far in 2013. Rival drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards - elite names in Nascar - all brought their daughters to meet Patrick as practice and qualifying got under way.
"Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person because 'to her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn't exist'," Patrick said. "Then, after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls who wanted to meet me."
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Patrick credits her success in the male-dominated world of auto racing to the values instilled in her by her parents when she was young and by her ability to land on quality teams.
"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning," Patrick said.
Maybe so but Robert Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University told USA Today that plenty of people would be tuning to the 2013 Daytona 500 specificially to see if the fastest girl can beat the fastest men.