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OPINION: Danica Patrick’s impact is undeniable as she readies for final races with SHR

RELATED: Patrick won’t return to SHR in ’18

Having covered Danica Patrick since her earliest days in auto racing’s big leagues — trackside as she won the pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500 and then scored a historic eighth-place finish in the race — it was immediately apparent she would be a difference-maker, the kind of competitor that would be remembered for generations.

When she came to NASCAR full-time in 2012 there were high and historic expectations on and off the track. And Danica did not back down from them.

This week’s news that Patrick won’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 causes pause, the hope being the 35-year-old will land with another team. She is, after all, the sport’s ultimate survivor — having thrived against harsh odds and many naysayers.

And while she may still be prone to judging her experience by the lessons learned and near-misses on track, she could righteously be spinning victory doughnuts for the impact and audience she brought to the sport.

“She didn’t know who my daughter was at all, and I saw those early days where she converted Olivia to a true fan,” NASCAR President Brent Dewar told SIRIUS XM NASCAR Radio’s “Happy Hours” hosts Matt Yocum and Kevin Harvick on Tuesday.

“I would ask Olivia, why are you cheering for, Danica? And she says, ‘Dad, she’s a girl trying to beat the boys. How cool is that?’

“And that’s opened the doors for many fans and many young racers. We’ve got a lot of young females coming up through the series, and Danica’s presence will be immeasurable for years and years to come. She’s a top talent, both on and off the track.”

Being a woman in a traditional male sport that depends so much on marketing automatically means navigating a difficult dichotomy.

Patrick always has prioritized the time spent on track and the good results she expects. Her being female made some things more difficult and other things easier enduring that undeniably long, hard learning curve.

Patrick’s performance automatically received more scrutiny because she was different. But she was ready.

From the get-go, she has understood the importance of marketing and was eager to combine her talent and aspiration with corporate duties. It was a win for Patrick and the companies she worked with. And still is.

What she has done is no different than what her male counterparts did or wanted to do. She has seized the opportunities that she has earned. And Patrick’s publicity was NASCAR’s publicity. It has helped the entire sport, not just her.

Many were surprised when Patrick decided to leave IndyCar racing, where her 2008 victory in Japan and Indianapolis 500 accomplishments were so significant. It would have been easier to stay and continue competing in the open-wheel ranks that Patrick grew up learning.

But the lure of a new challenge under NASCAR’s bright spotlight is exactly what intrigues her.

And she deserves credit for taking the tougher, unfamiliar, more scrutinized path. She has had to learn to drive a completely different race car around race tracks — for the most part — she’d never even visited.

Yet it has never intimidated Patrick. It has challenged and inspired her. And her determination has impressed her fans, and her competitors.

“I’ve always been a believer in Danica’s ability as a race car driver and that continues to be the case,’’ team owner Tony Stewart said Wednesday. “She’s one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. She has never backed down from a challenge. In fact, she’s sought out new challenges throughout her career, and that’s what brought her to NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing.”

When interviewing Patrick about her racing over the years, I have always been struck by her answers. Instead of a quick, automatic response, she will pause to think about the questions and offers thoughtful, often nuts-and-bolts answers. For example, she doesn’t speak in broad generalities about wanting to win at Martinsville, or how much she may love the iconic hot dogs there. She talks about what she needs in the car at that particular venue — mechanically and seat-of-the-pants.

When she does well, she wears the pride and achievement on her face. And when things don’t go well, she analyzes and looks big picture. She always has demonstrated her passion and will go bumper-to-bumper on track and face-to-face with drivers afterward to settle issues if need be.

Patrick has brought exactly the kind of hutzpah the sport thrives on — that any sport would benefit from. She has inspired a generation of young girls — including my own daughter — to realize there is nothing that can hold them back from pursuing a dream.

But it’s not just the “girls” that benefit from Patrick’s example. It’s all of us.

Making a difference in the world isn’t just a catchphrase or easy sound byte. It’s a genuine aspiration we all should share.

MORE: Tony Stewart’s full statement

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