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In scrutiny, Danica's drive still comes from within

February 12, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Danica Patrick Daytona 500

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This isn't the first time in Danica Patrick's career that her talent and motivation have been challenged. But when NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, a seven-time champion and the sport's winningest driver, publicly questions your place in the sport, people take notice.

And, if you're Patrick, you take the high road.

Over the weekend, Petty addressed a group at the Canadian Motorsports Expo. It wasn't a media interview, according to his team, but a handful of local reporters were in the audience and asked if he thought Patrick would ever win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

"If everybody else stayed home," Petty replied candidly. "If she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she'd showed up at a race track."

Then, according to a Richard Petty Motorsports spokesman, Petty also discussed Patrick in a broader context in relation to her impact on the sport.

"This is a female deal that's driving her," Petty said. "There's nothing wrong with that because that's good PR for me. More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport."

And the 76-year-old Petty hasn't backed off his remarks either, although his team insisted this week that The King's words were not intended to be sexist.

Since then, the nightly news, major newspapers and every cable sports show host and racing blogger have enjoyed a spirited debate on the matter.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, was asked about it during an appearance on the "Dan Patrick Show" on Wednesday.

"God bless Richard," Keselowski said. "He said what he was thinking. I can't disagree with a guy who says what he thinks. There's something to be said for that, but I can disagree slightly with his comments. I do think that she has a chance at winning. Is she a top-level driver? Absolutely not. But she does have a chance at winning so I think it's probably unfair."

Coincidentally this has all come up less than two weeks before NASCAR's biggest event, the season-opening Daytona 500 -- the race Patrick has come closest to winning. Last year, Patrick made history by becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole position and lead the race (twice for five laps) -- making her one of only 13 drivers to lead both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 -- and her eighth-place finish in the 500 is also a historic best.

Even last February, some wondered aloud if winning the pole was enough to satisfy the frenzied Danica hype, fully expecting her to fall back once the green flag dropped. Instead she ran up front all race and was in position to contend for the win up until the last lap. A couple of former Daytona 500 winners, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were among a handful of veterans to out-maneuver the then-rookie in a typically wild and exciting checkered flag free-for-all.

Afterward, the winner Johnson gave her the ultimate vote of confidence.

"I didn't even think about it being Danica, but just another car on the track that was fast and I think that's a credit to her," Johnson said.

It's a delicate and paradoxical situation for Patrick. She wants to fit in and be considered "one of the guys" good enough to contend for a trophy each week.

But for the good and the bad, Patrick will never be just "one of the guys" even if she does eventually contend for a trophy each week. She's reconciled that. Now everyone else should.

Be assured -- Patrick doesn't race in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series so she can make GoDaddy commercials. She makes GoDaddy commercials so she can race. She races to win. And that's no different from many of her competitors, who also use their own distinctive marketing assets to appeal to sponsors and make them successful pitchmen -- even during extended times they aren't winning races or championships.

Earnhardt's down-home charm helps him sell Wrangler jeans. Super-fit Carl Edwards displayed his toned physique in "ESPN The Magazine," and it gives him credibility as a Subway pitchman. Jeff Gordon's Hollywood-ease has even earned him a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live."

Yes, these guys have all won races. But they came into the Cup level with a lot more stock car experience than Patrick.

In a lot of ways, Patrick's career has been like negotiating that final lap of the Daytona 500 -- with the added weight of expectation and scrutiny tied to the back bumper, speed bumps of doubt and a huge learning curve ahead. And while she may often be a polarizing figure for fans and non-fans, Patrick is well-liked in the NASCAR garage and respected by the guys she's going door-to-door with at 200 mph.

And for sure at least two young members of the NASCAR family are solidly in Patrick's corner.

In the moments after Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole over three-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon, his then 5-year-old daughter Ella excitedly ran over and asked for a photo … with Patrick.

In the next few days, Johnson's young daughter Evie was a frequent visitor to Patrick's Daytona garage stall. Johnson joked that she only knew two cars: his and Patrick's bright green Chevrolet. Matt Kenseth and Edwards' daughters are big fans, too.

So Patrick's early morning interview session Thursday at Daytona 500 Media Day will probably go something like this: "How was your offseason, Danica? Any idea what you're going to buy your boyfriend Ricky for Valentine’s Day?" Followed by, "What's your reaction to Richard Petty's comments about you?"

Sadly, the cringe-worthy question of whether she -- or any female driver -- is good enough to win is old hat for her. Expect Patrick to respond with typical grace and class.

Best of all will be when she doesn't have to answer that kind of a question anymore. But what will it take -- a win, two wins, a championship?

Can Patrick win? Of course she can. She wouldn't be in this position if she couldn't.

Clearly there's something different in her DNA that drives her -- and other women in predominantly male work environments -- to forge ahead, follow dreams and resist the doubt.

It would have been far easier for Patrick to give up racing than to leave her family as a teenager and move to England to hone her talents against the best aspiring open-wheel drivers.

It would have been easier to simply take the endorsement money and fame when she was initially dismissed in IndyCar as a novelty act, but instead she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and then to win an IndyCar race (Japan, 2008).

After earning the respect of the open-wheel sect, it would have been easier to stay there where she was embraced and celebrated, but instead she took the risk and earned a one-of-a-kind opportunity to compete on NASCAR's biggest stage.

Will that first win come this year -- only her second full-time in the Cup Series? Her expectations are to improve on last season and a victory would be a bonus, although history shows it takes time even for those drivers with more stock car experience than Patrick.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip's first trophy came 15 years into his career. It took Petty's son Kyle -- who has also famously questioned Patrick's ability and drive -- six years before he visited a Sprint Cup Victory Lane. And one of Petty's current drivers, Aric Almirola, is still looking for his maiden victory entering the third full-time year of his Cup tenure.

Patrick isn't racing cars at the highest level to silence the critics or prove the naysayers wrong. She is doing this to prove herself right. That she can win.

And what's the alternative? Not to try?

Bet Ella Gordon and Evie Johnson would say "no way."

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