It ain't hype when you live up to it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
It was Danica Patrick's day to make something happen, and, boy, did she.
Sunday's Daytona 500 may have been her finest three hours on a race track.
And now she can say that she is one of only 13 in racing history to lead laps at both Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She calls that "cool."
Half of the 22 potential winners of the 500 either crashed or blew up before the finish. But as the field took the white, Jimmie Johnson leading Greg Biffle....here was Danica Patrick a tight third behind Biffle, looking for anything that might work.
"What could I have, should I have done to give myself that opportunity to win?" she was pondering after the race.
Given the fact that there was virtually no passing in the race, there probably wasn't much she or Biffle could have done.
Then when David Reutimann hit the wall less than two miles from the finish line, things got a bit unsettled, as drivers and crews watched to see if NASCAR would throw the yellow. NASCAR didn't.
Tony Gibson, Danica Patrick's crew chief, delivers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But through the afternoon Patrick kept talking with crew chief Tony Gibson about how things were going on around her: "What do you see people doing? What's working, what is not?"
She certainly had plenty of time during the race to think. So did everyone else. Nothing much was really going on.
"I spent most of the day half-throttle running behind people," she said. "When you get in that line, that nice outside line where it's just single-file, I didn't feel like it was a wise idea to drop low and try to figure out how to pass. You were going to probably find yourself much further back."
She conceded that she never got much practice passing during SpeedWeeks. Of course most other drivers could say the same.
Late in the race, for a few moments, the inside line did suddenly show strength, but not for long.
"Once Jimmie got in the outside line, he was fast," Patrick said.
The new 2013 Chevy has won three of the first four races (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
After the race, Patrick was told that Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, was offering her a Formula One test. Red Bull, which gave up NASCAR racing after five years, has won three straight F1 titles.
Patrick, now 30, was considered for a Honda F1 ride a few years ago. Would she be interested in F1 now?
"I didn't hear about that," she said. "That's nice.
"I have been in that situation before, where someone has offered for me to test the car. It was a long time ago, quite a few years ago. Where do they test, in South Africa or something in the winter.
"Anyway, for me, if I'm not serious about driving a Formula One car, I'm not a car geek. I don't feel like I have to drive a Formula One car to make my life complete.
"Unless it was something I was serious about doing, my schedule is rather full anyway.
"Then it just opens you up for criticism. If it doesn't go well, what are people going to say?
"That's something that I don't like to put myself in.
"But it's a very kind offer."
Brad Keselowski makes it to victory lane to congratulate Jimmie Johnson. These guys do have something going (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On a more practical level Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson have to switch gears to Phoenix and Las Vegas, two very different tracks from Daytona.
Patrick concedes she does not want to get ahead of herself: "It would be unwise to sort of start telling myself that top-10 is where we need to be every week. I think that's setting up for failure.
"These tracks are different and unique. A lot is about the car. I mean you have to be smart enough to do the right thing at the right time, but it's very much about the car.
"I'm still sticking to 'Let's see how these first five races go,' where we go to a bunch of different kinds of tracks, see where we settle in, start to establish goals from there on out."
What to make of Sunday's single-file non-thriller?
It was just what drivers had predicted. But this sport needs a big shot in the arm to get back on top of the sports world, to get some good tv ratings, to put more fans in the stands. And it's hard to see how this 500 did that.
Mark Martin: "One of the things that made it hard to pass was nobody would get organized on the bottom (lane).
"I think you could (have passed low), because there at the end when they got a good line organized, it got to be pretty dangerous.
"The problem was that the car on the inside of the front line wasn't the fastest car (at the end, which was banged up Brad Keselowski). If you would have had the fastest car in the field on the inside, you would have had a whale of a race there at the end.
"But the top groove was the preferred groove. And I don't think that had a lot to do with the Gen-6 as much as everybody was flying -- the cars were fast, and the cars seemed to like the momentum you'd get off the corner."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said much the same thing: "That first 150 miles, everybody commits to the top, there are not enough guys to organize on the bottom -- you'd get freight-trained. There's too much risk.
"You work all day on track position, because you got to be toward the front to have a shot at it. You hate to give up any track position.
"I saw guys like Jeff Gordon pull out (to pass) and go to the back. Too much of a risk."
So much for Tony Stewart's day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski nearly pulled the best comeback of the race. In fact he was the man to beat until that last caution.
"All day that the high lane was so much faster than the lower lanes that the guy that had the high lane was in charge," Keselowski said.
"We got real fortunate because we caught a big break when the yellow came out and we had just pitted. That got us to the lead.
"Then we caught a bad break when the yellow came out as we were battling with Jimmie. He was an inch in front of me when the yellow came out and that gave him the high line on the restart, and there was nothing we could do. We weren’t strong enough to hold our own there on the bottom.
"I kept trying everything I could to make a pass on the lower lanes, but it wasn't going to work. I didn't want to run single file, but when you try to make a move and go to the bottom, you just go backwards."
Biffle was running second at the white but wound up sixth.
"I was going to make my move in the middle of three and four," Biffle said. "Off four I was going to back up to Danica (third).
"I knew Junior was backing up....
"And then they said Junior is coming on the bottom. I'm thinking 'There's no way he's going to have enough momentum to get by us.
"But he was coming so fast I don't think I could have blocked him. We would have had a wreck like yesterday.
"I would have never thought the bottom lane would have gotten a run like that at the end.
"That's what's so frustrating.
"I figured Jimmie would side-draft (and slow) Junior, and then I'd have a chance to pass them both.
"That was my plan. I had it figured out.
"But my plan didn't quite come together."
The race was only a few minutes old when half a dozen contenders got crashed out (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Mark Martin, a big rap fan, told 50 Cent he'd have to change his name to 55 Cent if Martin won the Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)