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Would you believe....Danica Patrick on the Daytona pole?

  The Danica 500? Well, first we've got the Danica 300, Saturday's Nationwide race, and she's on the pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Perhaps not improbably, given all the hype surrounding her and the technology behind her this SpeedWeeks, Danica Patrick won the pole Friday for Saturday's Nationwide 300, the opening race of her first full-time all-NASCAR season.
   Just 24 hours after a brutal crash in Thursday's 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifying heat, the transplanted Indy-car driver beat some of the sport's biggest names – Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch – to get the inside front row for the 1:15 p.m. ET start.

   As the New York Times noted 'NASCAR couldn't have scripted this one any better.'
   Patrick's run, under hot, blue skies, marked the first time a female driver has been on a NASCAR pole since Shawna Robinson in 1994 at Atlanta.
   She quickly gave credit to crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
   Now Patrick, who turns 30 next month, faces the longest day of racing of her career, 800 miles.
   But it was almost a surreal scene following her run, with rivals waxing rhapsodic about her and how important she is for the sport. It was almost as if they were all preparing to pull over and let her pass at will.
   And Patrick herself was downright giddy.
   Increasingly nervous too.
   The PR, marketing and media blitz surrounding her this SpeedWeeks has been so over the top as to be bizarre….probably a sign of just how desperate teams and sports executives are to get some national buzz going about this sport.
   And there is the sense that finally all that is at last hitting home for Patrick herself.
   Up till now she hasn't really had to produce much on the track, just be there and not get into too much trouble.
   However that looks to be changing:
  "Yes, a lot of pressure, and now I feel nervous….but I don't mind being nervous, because it tends to bring out good things in me," Patrick said after edging a dozen or so NASCAR veterans, all winning drivers, for the pole.
   Of course it's no secret that stock car racing marketers hope that Patrick will have success in NASCAR and that her success will attract more fans, which would in turn attract more sponsors.
   ESPN's Rich Feinberg, who runs the racing part of the network's portfolio, said Wednesday that Patrick has boosted ratings in key demographics: "She is somebody that clearly has brought new fans to the sport.  She represents appeal to a younger demographic which is an important area for us to grow our viewership base."
   However when Feinberg was asked for specific demographic numbers to back up that statement, he deferred to NASCAR, and NASCAR officials declined to offer any TV demographics about Patrick. When ESPN was again asked Friday about Danica demographics, there was little to add.
   For her part Patrick has done fairly well on the track during her first two years of part-time NASCAR, though nothing very impressive.
   And what has been a very vocal fan backlash has been hanging over this project for some time, with some resenting the media attention she has been getting, over more talented and more successful drivers.
   Trevor Bayne, for example, might be one to consider in setting up contrast: he won the Daytona 500 a year ago, and yet he has still been unable to land major sponsorship, for either his Cup efforts or his Nationwide efforts.
   However Bayne, who won the other front row spots for Saturday's 300, was just as enthusiastic about hopes for Patrick's success as anyone here.
   Now, of course, Patrick has to back up this run Saturday.
   And, crucially, she probably won't be able to hide, or lay back in the pack. She's up front and she's got to decide what to do early – be a leader or be a pusher. In the Nationwide series the two-car tandem draft still rules. Logically she would hook up with either Earnhardt, who owns her Nationwide team, or Stewart, who owns her Cup team.
   But handling the intricacies of two-car drafting could be difficult.
   "I still have a lot to learn," she concedes. "But I've been able to do this in such a nice way."
   And, with Bayne himself perhaps as example, Patrick might have already made a strong case for rivals to jump in and help her. "It's always nice to have a fast car…and you always want to be with the fastest car possible," she said. "We'll see how it works out in the Nationwide race, because it seems like there's a lot of bump-drafting.
   "But if I'm left out there alone, I'm sure someone is going to say 'I want to go with a fast car.'
   "And that starts to earn you some respect and some credibility. People will want to work with you then. And it's my job to show that I'm good to work with.
   "It opens the door….
   "Dale Jr. was trying to tell me where he likes to make his runs and how he likes to start them. I know I've got a lot to learn. Like, on the bottom you can side-draft and it won't help you; but on the high side you can side-draft and pull away.
  "I've not to have to step outside of my comfort zone (in her career), and that's been good. To be able to learn and have time to do it."
   And where does this 'cover girl,' 'Playmate-type' approach to marketing fit into all this?
   Patrick has made a big point during her career about liking the sex appeal part of her marketing, and insisting she never does anything over the line.
   But Patrick, though she likes to talk about having fun being a sexy girl in all this, insists that out on the track "it's not about being a girl, it's about being the best driver."
   Well, now, maybe she finally has to show us what she's really got.
   "Tuck in and let's go fast," she says.

  Danica Patrick, asking questions of Trevor Bayne (C) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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