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Track success only part of Patrick's story

February 20, 2013, Holly Cain,

Fans gravitate toward Danica, who keeps it all in perspective

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick says she isn’t particularly a “car person.’’ She would prefer a day of shopping with her girlfriends to sitting on the couch watching a race on television. And, according to her boyfriend, fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., she plays a mean game of cards.

She’s never been able to talk her way out of a speeding ticket, loves to cook lavish meals and collects fine wine.

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And yes, those were $1,000 Christian Louboutin spiked heels she wore during an interview session last month in Charlotte, N.C.

There’s a lot that NASCAR fans are just learning about the Sprint Cup’s high wattage rookie.

But there is one other thing you should know about Danica Patrick.

“I love to prove people right,’’ she said. Then, with a gleam in her eye, she added, “And prove them wrong.’’

"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl."

-- Danica Patrick

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She did both this past Sunday afternoon, becoming the first woman in NASCAR history to earn the pole position for its biggest race, Sunday’s Daytona 500 -- besting the sport’s biggest stars from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.

And for that, she will lead the field to the green flag in the first of Thursday’s Daytona Duels, the 150-mile twin qualifying races that will set the 500 starting field.

While she has proven her No. 10 Chevrolet is the fastest around Daytona International Speedway’s famous high banks so far this year, no one seems quite yet ready to pronounce Patrick, 30, the odds-on favorite for the race. She’ll be the first driver to see the green flag driving Sprint Cup’s brand-new Generation-6 cars against the highest level of competition she’s faced since joining NASCAR full time last year and the marquee Cup series this season.

She has, however, simultaneously raised expectations and ratings.

“I was really impressed,’’ said Bill Warren, 50, a fan from Friendswood, Texas, attending his first Daytona 500. “She’s like a firecracker. She’s determined and she backs up the confidence she shows.

“She’s there to win and it’s really a good thing for the sport. I have 13- and 14-year-old daughters and they pull for her. They see opportunity is out there for her to do this, so what would keep them from doing something they really wanted?’’

That’s exactly the kind of sentiment that has followed Patrick throughout her career. She became the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005 and the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008. And she earned the pole position for the NASCAR Nationwide Series season-opener last year here at Daytona.

She is always humble and mindful about blazing trails for women, although it has never been a singular purpose.

“It’s nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say, ‘but Mommy, Daddy, that’s a girl out there (racing),’ ” Patrick said. “Then they can have the conversation with their kid about, you can do anything you want and being different doesn’t by any means not allow you to follow your dreams.

“I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I’m doing.’’

But, as she reminded reporters after winning the pole position Sunday afternoon, “I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.’’

That was clearly the case Sunday on NASCAR’s brightest stage. And it may have answered skeptics who have questioned her ability and gumption.

Some fans and competitors alike developed preconceived notions about how this attractive IndyCar driver who stars in Super Bowl commercials and has posed in a bikini in Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit issue would fare alongside NASCAR’s best, even if the sport long ago shed its “good ol’ boy” reputation.

Patrick’s crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Gibson, an old-school, earn-your-way-in kinda guy, admits he didn’t know what to expect when he learned he’d be paired with her. He was most curious, he says, to see her level of commitment.

“I think I always questioned her intensity of ‘is this really what she wants to do,’ I always wondered that,’ said Gibson, who has worked on the Daytona 500-winning cars of Michael Waltrip, Derrike Cope, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “And she answered that question pretty fast in the two races she ran with us last season. She answered that fast. I know she’s in it to win it and her head is really in it, this is what she wants to do. That was the biggest question, I had. And I was happy with the answer I got.”

Gibson said people also may be surprised at the level of technical detail Patrick immerses herself in. It isn’t a ride-and-drive-and-smile operation.

“She likes to look at all the data, she likes to see the graphs versus the other drivers -- their braking and throttle traces,’’ Gibson said. “She knows she can look at a guy like Tony Stewart, study his data and learn from it and get better and I think that’s cool.’’

The way Patrick is carrying herself these days, her confidence is up, her optimism soaring. She’s wearing a perpetual smile. Of course that’s easy when you’re the darling of Daytona, the talk of the town.

But she’s always ascribed to the “what you see is what you get” philosophy and admits to wearing her emotions on her sleeve, whether it’s happily discussing her new relationship with a hoard of prying reporters this week or more famously in the past, angrily confronting fellow drivers after a race when she felt she had been wronged.

And then there’s the side people don’t get a chance to see as often.

The shopping trips with friends, the practical jokes, the interaction with the youngest of fans.

Walking through the lobby of a Concord, N.C., hotel between press interviews last month, she stopped and posed for a photograph with two young children whose parents had been waiting for a couple of hours in hopes of seeing her.

After the photo was snapped, Patrick bent down and started up a conversation before her public relations manager urged her to the waiting interview. She waved goodbye to the kids and even greeted the nervous parents.

“I didn’t know if she’d even stop,” the father said, sheepishly. “But boy, is she great.”

Consider it another fan conversion.

But it’s been a two-way street. Patrick says she didn’t initially know what to expect from the NASCAR nation. How would they feel about someone who unapologetically embraced and promoted her feminine side while expecting her competitors -- and fans -- to give her respect behind the wheel rubbing fenders with the men.  

And the burden of proof grew exponentially with the hype that preceded her.

“I’ve had great fans all along the way so I can’t say there was any ‘aha’ moments about where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do,’’ Patrick said. “For me it was all about driving the car and when I first took off out of the pit area the first time I drove a stock car it was like, ‘I’m home, this is comfortable.’

“I got done with my first race at Daytona in the ARCA car (sixth-place finish in 2010) and I had never had so much fun in a car before my whole life. Those are the moments that made me fall in love with the sport.’’

After being voted the 2012 Nationwide Series’ Most Popular Driver, it appears the feeling is reciprocated. And her performance over the weekend during Daytona 500 pole qualifying at the very least puts her off on the right foot. It is a start.

And while Patrick may be polarizing still to fans who can’t decide if they’re believers or doubters, she has already convincingly won over those that must believe in her the most: her team.

“She’s a lot of fun to be around and we’ve had great fun together in this short time,’’ Gibson said. “She adapts really well and fits in with our guys really well.

“Heck, we’ve got her listening to country music and she’s going to go gator hunting with me in July here. We've got her switched right now, hoss."


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