All eyes on Danica Patrick

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:54 PM ET

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick is everywhere in this Atlantic coast tourist mecca.

The 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound beauty has taken America's stock-car racing capital by storm. They even have a name for the phenomenon -- Danicapalooza.

It seems only right that the best known female race-car driver in the world should choose an oceanside resort for her big coming-out party in NASCAR -- after all, before she was famous for driving four-wheeled rockets at 200 m.p.h., Patrick was best known for showcasing her bikini-clad body in between the covers of such periodicals as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and other men's magazines such as FHM and Maxim.

But Patrick has proven she is much more than a swimsuit model. This week, already, she has a top-10 finish in her first stock car race, taking the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet to sixth spot in the ARCA race.

And she has been in the top 10 all week in practice for Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 400 NASCAR Nationwide race.

In her final practice Thursday, Patrick laid down a lap at Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile high-banked oval of 183.072 m.p.h. -- fifth fastest of 51 drivers on the track that day.

She was faster than NASCAR superstars such as Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and her own boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It doesn't cover up, though, an undercurrent of criticism for the way Patrick got to where she is from some of the women who paved the way for her in racing.

In an interview this past week Janet Guthrie -- the hall of fame driver who was the first woman to compete in NASCAR -- told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that by playing up her sexuality, Patrick was allowing herself to be exploited.

Guthrie said that when she announced she was entering the then World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in 1976, she was approached by a magazine and asked if she would pose in something other than a fire suit on the hood of a race car.

"I was just so disgusted I couldn't stand it," she said. "What in the world did they think this was all about? Needless to say, I cut a better figure then than I do now, but I wouldn't have considered it for a microsecond.

"I was really, really disgusted with the journalist who asked me to do it. I found the thought absolutely repellent.

"I think (notoriety) ought to be based on your driving skills and the degree to which you can represent your sponsor as a good representative of the sport."

Patrick isn't about to apologize to Guthrie, or anyone else, for the way she has handled her career thus far.

In an earlier phone interview with the Toronto Sun, Patrick took umbrage at her detractors, saying that racing is all about being out front and that's all she was doing in her career -- getting people to notice her.

"As a driver and as a brand, I can only hope that people will be talking about me," she said. "Yeah, I'm always very flattered whenever I'm brought up in conversation or brought up in the newspapers.

"A friend of mine said that he was at the grocery store overhearing a couple of people talking about me in IndyCar and NASCAR. So, to be in those conversations is very flattering. It's all good news."

Swimsuits aside, Patrick is a focused athlete whose aim is to win races.

"I think the most important thing for me is to put myself in a situation where I can win as many races as possible and run up front and be in that competitive situation," she said.

"That's the most important thing because, at the end of the day, usually the best press comes when I'm doing things on track. That's really the most important thing for me as a driver. So, that's where the ultimate focus is going to be."

Even Guthrie concedes that Patrick has every right to make hay while the sun shines, just the same way male athletes do every day of the week outside their arenas.

"She made, what, $7 million last year? So I guess she's doing something right," Guthrie said.

'COMFORT LEVEL'

Another female racing pioneer, Lyn St. James, has a different take on the 27-year-old's career -- she loves it.

St. James told FOX Sports this week that she was both excited and proud of Patrick's debut in stock cars at Daytona.

"She looked like she was having a good time out there," St. James said. "She found her legs. She looks like she found her calling. It's going to take time to develop a comfort level and learn who she can trust. Those cars don't act as stable -- particularly in the draft -- as Indy cars do. But she was awesome.

"You can drive a race car if you're a good race car driver, but it's a completely different thing to connect with a race car and she did that."

Words, surely, that Patrick will use as inspiration Saturday.

There is another wave of critics -- those inside NASCAR -- who have expressed mild discomfort at the amount of attention Patrick is getting from the media in Daytona.

Some say that by running only part-time, Patrick has taken away a racing opportunity from a driver such as Kelly Bires, who normally would drive the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet.

Bires even went on his Twitter account this week to quietly complain about what happened to him: "As everyone can see, I will not be running Daytona. Very bummed out about it!"

Others, such as Jimmie Johnson, the reigning NASCAR champion and the only driver to ever win four consecutive titles, poo-poos the idea that Patrick's fame is overshadowing the Daytona 500 or other drivers.

"I think it is great for all of us. With it being a tough time with the economy where it is, with us wanting more viewers because the viewership numbers weren't where we wanted them last year, this is great stuff," Johnson said.

"As long as it is bringing eyes to television sets and putting butts in the seats in the stands, that is a good thing."

Patrick, herself, appeared a bit befuddled by the suggestion that she is stealing the limelight from other more established drivers.

"I can't control how much is out there and what people say, how much they say," she said. "I don't, by any means, want to take away from the amazing drivers that are out there.

"That's not my mission, to be the big story. But, you know, on the other hand, if I can do anything to help the series, the other drivers, perhaps drag in some sponsors, I'm happy to do it.

"And I benefit from that, too. So there's a lot of reasons why this is a good thing. But I, by no means, am trying to take anything away from anybody else, including the Daytona 500."

It is not the first time Patrick has found herself in such a predicament.

Back in 2006, her second season in the IndyCar series, five top drivers -- all members of the Andretti-Green Racing stable -- threatened to boycott an Indy 500 press conference because they believed Patrick was getting preferential treatment.

Rich Feinberg, executive vice-president for motorsports at ESPN, said that he was aware of complaints that his network was turning into the all-Danica, all-the-time channel.

'GREAT TALENTS'

"We actually talked about that in our staff meeting," Feinberg said.

"First of all, I watched the ARCA race, and I thought SPEED's presentation was very balanced. I enjoyed it. There was a lot of Danica, but the reality is that was why I personally turned on the race, so it gave me what I was looking for.

"(But) First and foremost, it's about racing in Daytona. After that, the next biggest story, and quite frankly opportunity for all of us, is Danica. It's our strong belief that there will be people that turn on Saturday's Nationwide telecast that perhaps don't watch a lot of Nationwide races or NASCAR at all, because of the interest in her."

An example of just how much Patrick can mean to a television network came Friday when SPEED-TV released its final ratings for last week's ARCA race.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 2.4 million viewers tuned in to see the Saturday afternoon race, an astounding 87% increase over last year's audience of 1.3 million.

Still, there is no one saying yet that Patrick is anywhere near favoured to win Saturday's Nationwide race.

Dale Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR champion and lead racing analyst with ESPN, said what Patrick is doing in Daytona is getting an education.

"She just graduated from high school -- now she's going to college," Jarrett said. "She's just stepping to a whole other level. She's with guys now out here racing that have a ton of experience, that are great talents. She's going to be competing against a lot of guys that are in the Cup Series, and so that'll be her best opportunity to really learn.

"I can honestly say, just by watching what she did in IndyCar, even though I knew she had a lot of talent in driving a car, I wasn't sure she could come here and mix it up. I was wrong. She did a great job but now it's on to some more intense tests as she gets through this weekend."

At the end of the race Saturday, we'll know whether Patrick is ready for post-graduate work or if she will have to repeat her NASCAR class.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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