February 23, 2013

New Daytona dawns with Danica

By JENNA FRYAR The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The big boys brought their little girls to see NASCAR's shining star.

Danica Patrick
click image to enlarge

Danica Patrick sits in her green car waiting to start a practice run Friday for Sunday’s Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Fla.

Photos by The Associated Press

Jeff Gordon
click image to enlarge

Jeff Gordon was among the veteran drivers who brought his daughter to the speedway to meet with Danica Patrick.

THE BIG RACE

WHAT: Daytona 500

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway

FRONT ROW: Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon

TELEVISION: FOX (noon)

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all took their daughters to meet Danica Patrick this week at Daytona International Speedway.

It was the ultimate backstage pass.

Patrick dropped to one knee, wrapped her right arm around Ella Gordon's waist and posed for pictures as the 5-year-old flashed an endless grin in Victory Lane last week. Every day since, Patrick's crew has handed out dozens and dozens of lugnuts to little girls clamoring for souvenirs. Annie Edwards wore GoDaddy green shoes for the special occasion. Evie Johnson recognizes only two cars, her dad said -- his and the green one.

"Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person because 'To her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn't exist,' " Patrick said. "Then after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls that wanted to meet me."

Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona -- and with a brand new audience.

The first woman ever to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new eyeballs to Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. She'll lure in casual fans, women who don't know a muffler from a manifold, and little girls in awe of the glamorous driver and her fast green car.

It's an ambassador role Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race. But it's so much more now.

"You can only lead by example and I don't necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world. That's not what I am trying to say," Patrick said. "But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is."

And right now, she believes her potential is to win "The Great American Race."

Patrick starts first Sunday, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday's practice and mixing it up with NASCAR's biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.

"Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely," Patrick said. "I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn't mean I don't have a chance to win."

Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he's got a winner for Sunday. He was part of Derrike Cope's improbable 1990 victory, when Cope inherited the win when the late Dale Earnhardt blew a tire on the final lap.

"She has got the talent," Gibson said. "She's already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I've seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know she's fast. She can draft. She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence she can win the Daytona 500."

But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it -- it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win -- and Tony Stewart, Patrick's teammate and car owner, goes into Sunday's race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.

(Continued on page 2)

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