Danica Patrick a big hit at media day

February, 16, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Unless you were at the front of the scrum Thursday, not an easy thing to do in that frenzied crowd, you couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

But if you'd been paying attention the past few months, you didn't have to guess.

Danica Patrick -- the media day darling at Daytona.

"If I hadn't experienced all the media craziness here before, it might have been a little overwhelming," Patrick said. "But I know how it works here and how to organize things. And let's not forget I've been in the Indy 500, which is one of the biggest races in the world, if not the biggest."

Patrick is all NASCAR now, beginning her first full season in stock cars after two years of splitting time between her IndyCar Series schedule and a partial Nationwide Series schedule. She's racing the full Nationwide season this year, along with 10 Sprint Cup races.

And the media can't get enough of her. In all my years of covering NASCAR, and all the media days of the past, I've never seen that many people hanging on every word of one driver, including anyone named Earnhardt.

Patrick fully realizes that part of the attention comes from her celebrity status outside of racing, along with the fact that she's an attractive woman.

"If there's a pretty girl, it seems like [reporters] don't know how to describe her except being sexy," Patrick said. "That has such a negative connotation. You don't frame it like that for a guy, or even talk about it. But it seems like for female athletes that are pretty, they only know how to describe them in a sexual way.

"I don't care, but I wonder why we can't talk about it in a different way and use other words for it. It makes it somewhat negatively twisted. Discuss it some way without the word sex in it."

Well, the fact that she makes those Go Daddy commercials laced with sexual innuendo doesn't help, but Patrick is here to race. And she's better at that than many people think.

Patrick is 10 days away from racing in her first Daytona 500. Does she think she can win it?

"Yeah," she said with no hesitation. "There's a little bit more luck involved in the Daytona 500 just because of the style of racing it is. Things have to fall your way and you have to stay out of trouble that might not have been of your making."

She's right. Restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega are events that almost anyone in the field can win.

"Let's face it," she said. "Great drivers don't always have great races at these big speedways because it depends on so many other factors, like tandem racing and pack racing and an accident you can't miss.

"I have a fast car, but it's going to take some good breaks. I have to be patient. It would be nice to stay up near the front because you are less likely to get in an accident. But luck plays a big factor."

The first lucky break for Patrick came when she got a guaranteed spot in the field, thanks to NASCAR rules that allow the shady practice of swapping championship points with other teams.

No way NASCAR or Tony Stewart (her new Sprint Cup team owner) were going to take a chance on Patrick not qualifying for the biggest race of the season.

And it doesn't hurt having the defending Cup champion as your boss.

"Tony likes to have fun and I like to have fun," Patrick said. "I guess that's a really dumb thing to say. We all like to have fun. Tony doesn't drink wine, so I'll have to tune him in to that. But we have the same crazy sense of humor. We both enjoy the banter and joking around."

Until race day comes, then it's all business. Patrick's first goal is to get off to a good start this season.

"It's like being in school," she said. "You get a couple of bad grades right off the bat and it seems you can't get out of that hole. You want to start well. If things go well at the beginning, it seems you can hang around up there."

Patrick spent two years racing part time in NASCAR and trying to decide if it was right for her. One thing surprised her that influenced her decision to leave open-wheel racing.

"What surprised me the most is how much I truly enjoy driving these cars," she said. "That's sound cheesy, I'm sure, but I never thought I would like driving these cars as much as I do."

Sam Hornish Jr., an old rival in the IndyCar Series, also is racing full time in the Nationwide Series this year. The two drivers started battling each other as kids in go karts.

Hornish was across the room, almost alone in his interview session, while Patrick was talking. She had a quick message for Hornish.

"Oh, boy," she said. "I've got fenders now, Sammy."

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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