Danica Patrick ready to roll into first Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's not hard to tell when Danica Patrick is in a good mood.

She bounces into a room. She makes a comment about everything. She throws out some jokes.

"Do I stink? There's a fly around me," she said Friday in the interview room in the infield at Daytona International Speedway.

A tiny smile, and her attention was back on the reporters.

"Nice to be in here without having to be scheduled to be in here," she said.

Unscheduled visits to the media center are nice, indeed. They're a sign that a driver has done something good. In Patrick's case, it was winning the pole position for the Nationwide race at Daytona.

She did that Friday, catching NASCAR's attention by becoming only the second woman to win a Nationwide pole and kicking off her first full-time season in stock cars in the best way possible.

"Do you get any points for poles?" she said.

She was joking. She knew you don't.

"Darn it," she said.

But what she did get from winning the pole was a confidence boost in her stock-car skills after spending most of the first five years of her pro career racing open-wheel cars.

And confidence, despite the crash that knocked her out halfway through the Nationwide race Saturday, is one of the most important things she'll need today when she starts her first Daytona 500. She'll go off 29th in the fluorescent green No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Everybody's going to know where she is.

"The good thing, with a fluorescent green car, she's easy to pick out," said her boss, Tony Stewart, who will start third.

It doesn't take a fluorescent green car. The long, dark hair, Sports Illustrated bikini shoots, Super Bowl commercials and years as the promoted face of IndyCar make the 29-year-old from Roscoe, Ill., the most recognizable female racer in the United States.

But without results, she'll remain just that. The most recognizable female racer in the United States. Naturally, she wants more, and the people around her -- Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli, TV executives -- want more for her.

"She is somebody that clearly has brought new fans to the sport," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN's vice president for motorsports. "She represents appeal to a younger demographic, which is an important area for us to grow our viewership base, and she's a darn good race car driver."

ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett said, "I think she's a polarizing figure, and she's embraced the idea that she is the face of the Nationwide Series and somewhat the Sprint Cup Series now. A lot of eyes are on her."

Patrick got scrutiny for crashing on the last lap of her Gatorade Duel on Thursday. She hit the inside wall in a violent collision, and her reaction in the car was captured by in-car video.

The accident wasn't her fault, and her NASCAR colleagues were impressed by her coolness. They watched her walk away from the vehicle on her own.

Moments like that, and the laps she builds on the track, are going to help her gain the trust of her fellow competitors and confidence in herself, Stewart said.

"It's hard for her now because she's trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her that she's solid and is going to make good decisions, not just going to pull the pin every time she gets the opportunity to break out of line," Stewart said. "I think there's more aggression and confidence in her than what she showed here today."

She'll get her chance to show aggression and confidence today.

It won't be hard to tell if she had a good race. Listen for the jokes.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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