Danica Patrick has firm grip on Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The handshake. That's the first thing you notice about Danica Patrick.

It's a firm grip, one you typically expect from a man -- or a "lumberjack,"
as a member of Patrick's tight inner circle described.

Patrick, if you haven't noticed from her magazine spreads, television commercials and the way her firesuit fits, hardly is a man.

"That's her calling card, that she isn't just some chick," Bobby Rahal, who in 2002 gave Patrick her first big break in the United States with Rahal Letterman Racing, said of the handshake.

This weekend Patrick has a firm grip on NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway as she makes her full launch into the Nationwide Series and debut into the Sprint Cup Series on the grandest stage of all -- the Daytona 500.

Expectations for the 54th running of the Great American Race are unlike any in recent years because of this 5-foot-2, 100-pound woman with a death-grip handshake that tells you right away she is confident as well as charming.

Only three other times -- Janet Guthrie in 1977 and 1980, Shawna Robinson in 2002 -- has a female been in the field. None of those generated the kind of excitement Patrick has.

And neither Guthrie nor Robinson came with a team and sponsor where you could consider them even a long shot to win.

Patrick, 29, has both here with Stewart-Haas Racing and GoDaddy.com, just as she did in the IndyCar Series, where in 2005 she finished fourth in her first Indianapolis 500.

"She's kind of a big-stage, big-moment athlete," said Mark Dyer, a primary member of Patrick's business management team.

Many, including Patrick, see no reason she can't compete for the win on Sunday.

"Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year on this day?" said Tony Stewart, the co-owner of SHR who brought Patrick into NASCAR's premier series. "Talent, there is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."

There will be naysayers who question that. Some sarcastically suggested Patrick was covering her eyes out of fear when she crashed hard into the inside retaining wall on the last lap of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying race.

"I'll be happy to clear that up," said Patrick, who indeed did the right thing by releasing the steering wheel to protect her hands.

There's no clearing up that Patrick has the whole package when it comes to personality, marketability and driving ability. She showed on Thursday that she belongs here, running ninth on the final lap before another driver's mistake took her out.

Patrick already has been a win for NASCAR off the track. Television ratings the past two years in the Nationwide Series were significantly higher when she was in the field. On Tuesday, she was the keynote speaker at the National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C.

The only other NASCAR drivers ever invited to the prestigious event were the late Dale Earnhardt, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, who have a combined 15 championships between them.

Patrick just has that mystique.

An August 2011 survey of the NASCAR Fan Council revealed 87 percent of avid fans agreed with the statement "I hope Danica Patrick does well" and nearly 80 percent agreed that "Danica Patrick is good for NASCAR."

Look at Twitter. Patrick has just shy of 465,000 followers. Of NASCAR drivers who participate in the social media site, only Juan Pablo Montoya with 468,801 has more. Johnson with five titles has 135,719.

When Patrick won the pole for Saturday's Nationwide Series race, her name immediately jumped to the No. 6 trending topic in the United States.

There's no denying Patrick is popular, and her popularity makes this Daytona 500 one of the most unique. There will be eyes on the race that have never seen a Cup event before.

"People who say she has not done something [for NASCAR], that's just not a true statement," said Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer.

People who say Patrick hasn't done something for NASCAR need to look at the crowds. There were more fans and media around her before Thursday's qualifying race than Nationwide boss Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's perennial most popular driver.

It will get bigger on Sunday. Some who understand just how strong Patrick's grip is on this beach town have suggested they should turn the name of the track to Danicatona International Speedway.

It's not quite Linsanity, as there is an hour down I-4 in Orlando, where New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin is a part of the NBA All-Star Weekend, but in this world it's close.

"It's been a long time coming," Phelps said of Patrick's Cup debut. "To have it finally come to fruition ... it should be fun."

A win-win

Fans didn't follow Patrick into the restroom as she headed for driver introductions on Thursday, but it happens -- quite a bit, according to those who have worked with her.

Sharpie-carrying strangers in public restrooms aside, Patrick handles her fanfare with much more ease than when she burst into the IndyCar Series. She's grown to appreciate her popularity and is more comfortable with the constant scrutiny that comes with it.

She's also happier than at any other point in her racing career, which began at age 10 in go-karts.

"She has been like a new person since last year when she announced what she was going to do," Dyer said of Patrick's decision to leave IndyCar for NASCAR.

Ray Leto, an engineer for Patrick's IndyCar effort at Rahal Letterman, said it was frustrating in the beginning for Patrick to separate being a race car driver and celebrity. He said there were times when she was overwhelmed and "maybe not as gracious as she could be."

Patrick has been gracious almost to a fault in NASCAR. She admits the sport and the people are more relaxed and fun to be around, which helps her be more relaxed and have fun.

There also doesn't seem to be the jealousy over all the attention she gets like there was in IndyCar.

All of this was evident on Thursday during Patrick's walk down pit road to driver introductions. Less than 45 minutes from her first Cup race, Patrick was frolicking with crew members from other teams who tried to block her way. She playfully tossed water on one.

If she felt the pressure of high expectations for her and what she can do for the sport, Patrick didn't show it.

"I truly don't feel like anything more gets put on me," she said. "I feel like there is a lot of hopes, but I don't feel the pressure I have to do something, like I have to do something.

"I feel very lucky to have the fan base I do. If that helps [NASCAR] in any way, or if we can do something to make it better, then that's just a win-win."

Sex appeal and performance

First came a wolf whistle.

Then came a shout of "We love you, Danica!"

Patrick waved to her admirers as she made her way back from the infield hospital to her hauler after Thursday's crash. She was sore -- not a problem because her husband is a physical therapist -- but not so much that she didn't want to spend time talking to her crew about how to improve.

Despite her sex appeal, performance is what Patrick ultimately is about. That doesn't mean she doesn't use her femininity. Patrick knows that posing scantily clad in magazines has helped get her where she is.

Patrick also doesn't hide that she's a woman around her crew. Leto still laughs at some of the conversations Patrick used to have after a day of shopping for a new purse or high-heeled shoes.

"Having her come in and want to show us whatever manicure she got ... it was humorous," he said.

GoDaddy.com flaunts that with its commercials featuring Patrick in tight, leather outfits and 4-inch stilettos.

"When we signed her, we were a hundred-million-dollar company," GoDaddy.com founder Bob Parsons said. "Now we're over a billion-dollar company. Is it all her doing? No, the same as the New York Giants winning the Super Bowl isn't all Eli Manning's doing.

"But he played a key part in that, and it's kind of the same way here. People identify us with her."

NASCAR takes advantage of Patrick's femininity, as well. Officials understand there is an allure with having a female compete in a man's world. Few other sports, if any, truly give a woman that opportunity.

Patrick talked about that at the National Press Club.

"She really represented the sport well," Phelps said. "She was genuine, she was funny and she was engaging, and in a kind of tough room. But if you look at the things she's already done, she's not going to be content until she's winning races at all levels."

It all makes this weekend a huge deal, groundbreaking in many ways. Patrick isn't stopping by for a cup of coffee as other females have. She has all the ingredients to succeed the way none have before.

And it all begins with her handshake, something she was taught at a young age by her dad, "to shake like you mean it and not give a wimpy handshake."

"I'm not going to call it a girl handshake," Patrick said. "There are plenty of guys out there that have a wimpy handshake. ... It's just to make an impression, to let them know you're there and strong."

She definitely has a strong grip on NASCAR and Daytona.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.