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The next big test for Danica Patrick: surviving Thursday's 150-miler

The next big test for Danica Patrick: surviving Thursday's 150-miler

Danica Patrick has a lot of non-traditional stock car racing fans (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   Wouldn't this be ironic: a diminutive 5-foot-2, 110-pound woman jump-starting NASCAR back to sports fore?
   Yes, Danica Patrick, in less than a two-minute span Sunday afternoon, put NASCAR racing back on the front pages of media that generally could care less about stock car racing.
   People, and journalists-new-to-this-sport, are all a-gaga.
   Maybe this Daytona 500 should be renamed the You-Go-Girl 500.
   Just when this sport needs a big shot in the arm, heeere's Danica.
   NASCAR purists may cringe at Danica Patrick and other 'marketing' moves by this sport's execs.
   But there is no denying the impact that Patrick, during her four years in NASCAR, has had on a very cool, and unusual, sports demographic.

   Now it's another big day for Danica Thursday..
   This time, though, she won't be alone out on the track. She'll have 22 other drivers to contend with, in the first twin 150 (2 p.m. ET).
   She will have her hands full: the first 150, a 60-lap sprint, is chock-filled with potential winners of next Sunday's Daytona 500 -- Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Michael Waltrip and Kurt Busch.
   Not to mention this new car. Yes it may be nice and fast and racy, but Kurt Busch and Mark Martin, two of the best in the business, have already crashed twice each and gone to backups for the backup.
   However there really isn't that much pressure to perform in these two 150s, for most drivers, because there are only 45 drivers vying for Sunday's 43 spots.

   Jeff Gordon -- who is not the biggest guy on the tour, but who outweighs  Patrick by 40 pounds and is five inches taller -- is on the pole for Thursday's second 150, next to Ryan Newman, and just ahead of Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

   "When I grow up...." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Danica Patrick has been America's Heartthrob the past few days since winning the pole for NASCAR's biggest race. Publications and other media outlets that typically would be ignoring this little part of the U.S. sports world are fawning all over the Danica story. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and the New York Times.
   This story is all over the place.
   And that's great for this sport, which has been in something of a slump lately.
   Danica Patrick on the Daytona pole has upstaged the debut of these new 2013 race cars....well, sort of. Her run may be a boon for the new Chevy SS.

   No matter what happens in Thursday's two one-hour races, Patrick and Jeff Gordon are assured of spots in the 500 field. If they have to go to backup cars, they'd have to start in the rear. And as squirrelly as these new 2013 stockers are, being up front is clearly preferable. Logically the two could park early Thursday and protect their cars and their starting spots.
   But there has been precious little practice in these new cars, and Gordon himself warns against running Thursday's 150 too defensively.
   Okay, you want to know if Danica winning the pole was a fluke.
   Of course not.
   Daytona qualifying, as the faster of two laps alone,  is a test of the car, not the driver. Johnson says even a monkey could qualify at Daytona.
   And even if these cars are big and awkward, Patrick has a lot of experience with much higher speeds, from her Indy-car days.
   That Chevrolet has the pole here, the front row, and five of the six fastest cars in the field, is perhaps more important when considering what to anticipate in the 500 itself.


  Danica Patrick's 2012 season didn't go all that smoothly..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Now you want to know if Danica could actually win the 500.
    Let's be blunt. No way.
    Her car is strong enough. There are at least 26 legitimate potential winners in Sunday's field. And unheralded Trevor Bayne (on the front row next to Patrick in Thursdays first race) won the Daytona 500 two years ago, in a surprise.
    So she could win the 500....but odds are heavy, heavy that she won't....unless a huge crash wipes out a lot of her rivals.
   First, she has very little time in a Sprint Cup stocker. And in her handful of Cup races, she's been less than impressive. She ran 10 last year, averaged a 28th place finish, with her 17th at Phoenix the best.
   Yes, she's done fairly well at times in her Nationwide runs; but Nationwide cars are much easier to drive, and the competition isn't nearly as fierce.
   If Patrick can stay up close to the front, top-5, top-10, she may have a much better chance at finishing than if she gets shuffled to the back. Working through traffic is not going to be easy here even for the best drivers.
   Another point: as strong as Chevy teams are so far across the board, corporate rivals are not likely to cut them any slack.
   And throw in the point that some other drivers view Patrick as having an unfair 'free-ride' to the top, so to speak, without having to pay her dues or show great talent. She's had a few run-ins with some of those in the Nationwide series.
   Her one major win, in that Indy-car race in Motegi back in 2008, was something of a gas mileage win, rather than an in-your-face romp.
   The highlight of her racing career in fact may be that third-place run in the Indianapolis 500 in 2009.

  Chevy has two-up on its rivals so far, with Danica Patrick (R) and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   More to the point, when it comes time to race at Daytona and Talladega, it's not all about speed, it's as much about trust. Drivers  need to know what to expect from their rivals in many tight situations. And Patrick, while she may not get any cheap shots, probably won't get much help either. Her best bet Sunday may be to tuck in behind a veteran -- Stewart for one -- and follow him everywhere, using her car's power to push. That's just what Stewart himself did, with Dale Earnhardt, here when Stewart was just breaking in.

   All that said, Daytona may be the best opportunity this season for Patrick to win, because she has run well here before, and because this is a relatively easy track to drive.
   Putting Patrick's SpeedWeeks' performance in some perspective:
   -- She's the first woman to win a Cup pole. That's a stretch that goes back to 1949. (Shawna Robinson was the first woman to win the pole for a NASCAR national touring series, for a 1994 race at Michigan.
   -- She is following in the historical footsteps of Louis Smith, Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley, Janet Guthrie (15th in her NASCAR Cup  debut in 1976 in the Charlotte 600), Patty Moise, Robinson, Johanna Long, and many others. In fact, 16 women have raced at NASCAR's top level over the years, albeit with not much success; 11 more women have races Nationwide. (Remember that Guthrie and several other women did not have the advantage of power steering that today's drivers have; they had to muscle their cars. That's why drivers once needed to be big and muscular, like Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough. Once Geoff Bodine introduced power steering to NASCAR, drivers could be smaller and needed less strength.)
   -- And she may now help revive NASCAR's nearly 10-year-old 'drive for diversity' program. That program essentially offers 'scholarship' rides in lower levels, and it has been actively pushing for women and 'minorities' to gain a larger role in this sport. However, the sluggish U.S. economy has seriously battered that program the past few years, as expensive as any racing team is to run, and as limited as racing sponsorships are even for top-dogs.
   Danica Patrick, for all her racing knowledge and talent, remember, would not have gotten this far without major sponsorship.

  When she feels she's been wronged, Danica Patrick isn't afraid to let her emotions show it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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