Danica Patrick steals the spotlight

CONCORD, N.C. -- One driver in one corner of the ballroom, one driver in another corner at the same time. An observation on that little tidbit tells you all you need to know.

In the first interview session of the 2012 NASCAR media tour, the driver who never has raced in a Sprint Cup event had more reporters around her than the driver who is coming off his third Cup championship.

Welcome to Danica's world as a full-time driver in NASCAR.

Danica Patrick managed to upstage her new boss, Tony Stewart, at least as far as attention goes from more than 200-plus reporters attending Day 1 of the tour.

And Patrick had some big news Monday: The Indy 500 is out for her this year.

She surprised everyone in saying she will race in the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend and skip Indy, which consistently was her best event in the IndyCar Series.

"I'll miss Indy and I'll miss the fans," Patrick said. "It's my favorite track. But this doesn't mean it'll never happen again. For now, it's kind of a relief to me to just focus on NASCAR."

So it's official. Patrick is all in. Open wheel is behind her now. She is NASCAR's lady, and that's a big deal. In the world of pop culture, she's right up there with Kim Kardashian and Ashton Kutcher.

Take the Super Bowl, for example. When the Go-Daddy.com ads run on Super Bowl Sunday, Patrick will have appeared in more commercials than any celebrity in Super Bowl history.

Monday's media session was yet another example of her popularity. The Stewart-Hass Racing portion of the tour was held in a ballroom at the Embassy Suites near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Guests at the hotel, along with people attending other events, strolled in to see her and take cellphone pictures. It was getting out of hand, so CMS officials politely asked them to leave.

Get used to it. It's all part of Danica-mania, which isn't new for her, but the scale of the attention will continue to increase if she has success in NASCAR.

During a guest appearance Sunday on Sirius NASCAR radio, I was asked an interesting question. What would be a bigger story: Dale Earnhardt Jr winning the Daytona 500 next month, ending his three-year winless drought, or Danica Patrick winning it in her first Cup race?

Good question. The answer is Patrick, in a landslide.

Earnhardt winning that event would be huge with the NASCAR nation and the hard-core fans. But Patrick winning it would be huge for the rest of the planet, including people who've never watched a Daytona 500.

She would be featured on every news program from New York to Tokyo. And guess what? She thinks she can win it.

"At Daytona our cars are very fast, as you saw at the test," Patrick said. "I feel good about that race. I think there's a real chance if luck falls our way to perhaps win. A guy like Trevor Bayne last year showed that can happen."

Bayne shocked the racing world last year by winning it in his first attempt. The truth is, almost anyone can win at Daytona under the current rules package for restrictor-plate racing, a discipline in which Patrick has shown she can compete.

More people will see Patrick race in the Daytona 500 than ever have seen her in a race before, because more people watch Daytona than watch the Indy 500. A strong showing will propel her to new heights. And NASCAR will happily go along for the ride.

Daytona is one of 10 Cup races Patrick will run this year at Stewart-Haas Racing while competing full time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.

She moves full time to Cup in 2013. Greg Zipadelli is the man guiding her through the Cup learning curve this year.

"I love her confidence and that she's not afraid to think that she can win [Daytona]," Zipadelli said Monday. "There's nothing wrong with that. The way the racing is there today, if we stay out of trouble and put her in the right place, why doesn't she have a good opportunity?"

Zipadelli left Joe Gibbs Racing to become the new competition director at SHR this year and join his old buddy Stewart. They won two Cup titles together at JGR.

Zippy knows a thing or two about Cup newbies. He has worked as a crew chief with two of them. Stewart was a rookie when they started together in 1999 and so was Joey Logano in 2009.

"When Tony came in, it was fun to start that team from scratch and build it," Zipadelli said. "To have a similar opportunity here [with Patrick] is energizing to me."

I'm very fortunate to be in this position, with this team and these people. I've wanted to race stock cars full time for a while, and now it's finally happening. Life is good.

-- Danica Patrick

Zippy is the interim guy to get Patrick's No. 10 Chevy team started. He said they will take their time about picking a permanent crew chief for her. But he likes what he saw of Patrick during the Daytona test two weeks ago.

"I was very surprised at how attentive she was to everything around her and how relaxed she was," he said. "I saw how much positive input she had and the confidence she has."

Stewart sees it, too.

"In the short amount of time I've worked with her, I've noticed that she's so good at processing information," Stewart said Monday. "What she feels on the racetrack, she can explain to you right away and very accurately. Her feedback is excellent."

That's all well and good, but let's cut to the nitty-gritty. Cup drivers are mean. Patrick raced part time in the Nationwide Series the previous two seasons and had some decent showings. But that's Candyland compared to Cup.

The Cup boys are a surly lot. The first time she gets in the way of Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards or either of the Busch brothers, look out. They cut her some slack in Nationwide races. They won't in Cup.

So here's the question: Is she tough enough?

"We're just going to have to wait and see," Zipadelli said. "From what I've seen, she has as much guts as anybody I've met in a while.

"She confident in her ability, but she's not ignorant or cocky. She understands these guys are going to pick on her and she's going to have to take some of it. But she won't take all of it."

What Patrick needs to achieve this year more than anything else is respect. There is a fine line in sports between being a celebrity athlete and a laughingstock.

For all her glitz and glamour, Patrick knows she has to produce on the track to keep from becoming the latter in the long run. She has realistic goals for this season.

"There are still some tracks where I haven't raced," she said. "But for the most part, in Nationwide, I want to post solid top-10s and get into the top-5 more consistently through the year. And I'd like to get to Victory Lane.

"As far as Cup, I don't know. I guess top-20s would be a good goal. I like the longer races because I get more comfortable out there as we go when we tweak on the car on pit stops. I hope that plays into my favor in Cup races."

So does NASCAR. In some ways, Patrick is similar to Earnhardt, her team owner in the Nationwide series. What's good for Earnhardt is good for NASCAR, and the same is true with Patrick.

If she succeeds, the attention and the demands will continue to grow. If she struggles, the critics will blast her and the pressure will mount. Either way, Patrick has a lot to overcome.

"I don't know what to be nervous for," Patrick said. "I want to be fast and perform well. I'm sure I will get to the details, but at this point I'm open-minded and optimistic.

"I'm very fortunate to be in this position, with this team and these people. I've wanted to race stock cars full time for a while and now it's finally happening. Life is good."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.