Patrick’s shine has lit up Daytona, and the race hasn’t even started

Posted Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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What to watch for today Three storylines that could emerge from the Daytona 500: 1 Stewart’s first: Tony Stewart has a car that can win him his first Daytona 500. Or maybe one of his drivers, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, will. 2 The new car: NASCAR’s latest competition vehicle makes its debut. It’s supposed to be harder to draft, putting more of the race in the hands of the drivers. 3 Restrictor experience: The veterans, and the favorites, have it: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth. The winner is likely in that group.

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Danica Patrick has been the happiest driver in the garage all week.

All smiles, all laughs, all nice.

But it’s race time.

She’ll lead the field to the green flag at the Daytona 500 today, and maybe it’s time to stop being so nice.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking about winning this race, where she has been the story of the week after becoming the first woman to win a pole position, not only in NASCAR’s highest level, Sprint Cup, but at its biggest race .

“One of the things that I have worried a little bit too much about on these speedways is being really fair. And caring about every single driver out there, and trying to show them I’m loyal being behind them, or things like that,” she said.

Being loyal and fair might not fly if she wants to stay out front for 500 miles and make history. But she has already made her mark, no matter where she finishes.

She is starting her first full year in Sprint Cup (she ran 10 races last year), but has already earned at least some respect from the other drivers and full marks from her crew chief. She has unflinchingly accepted her place as a role model for young girls and women. She has embraced interest in her personal life (she is now dating fellow Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). And she has eagerly represented the sport in all sorts of media obligations all week.

All smiles, all laughs, all nice.

“I think you can only lead by example, and I don’t necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy’s world,” she said. “That is not what I’m trying to say. But if you do have a talent for something — to not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different, not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different.”

Patrick’s talent off the track is already clear. She is an effective spokesman for her sponsor, GoDaddy.com, in its Super Bowl commercials.

But today is a chance to show her talent on the track with perhaps the biggest audience that has watched her compete.

“I got to see how big it was after she got on the pole, what it meant, and how big it was news-wise,” said Patrick’s boss, team owner and driver Tony Stewart. “I’m just guessing, knowing how big it was after qualifying, if she were to win the race, it would be huge.”

Patrick is fast enough to at least put on a good show. Her qualifying lap of 196.434 mph was the third fastest of the restrictor-plate era.

Her crew chief, veteran Tony Gibson, predicts she will do just fine, in part because she’s going to get a chance to go full throttle. The team had been conservative in the qualifying races on Thursday and in the practices to protect their pole position.

“We have speed, and she can definitely get it done,” Gibson said. “I know we’ve been holding her back. We haven’t been letting her race, and I know that is frustrating. … But we are going to cut her loose on Sunday. I told her she can treat it like a video game. If you feel like you want to pull out and pass, go for it.”

But that will require that attitude change Patrick was talking about.

Can’t be all smiles and laughs to pull out of line, get on a rear bumper and draft to the front.

“What you end up noticing with a lot of guys that are at the front is, they go,” she said. “When other drivers see someone that wants to go, they want to go, too, and they will go with them. I think I just need to be a little bit more aggressive from that standpoint and stop worrying so much about being in line and being loyal and worry more about getting to the front, if I’m not there for some reason.

“I guess I’m concerned that I will pull out and I will just keep shuffling to the back because nobody will go with me.”

It’s a rookie’s concern. But she has speed. She’s starting in front. Everybody else is behind.

Can’t be unhappy about that.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez

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