MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Danica Patrick knows she has fans, but she didn't realize the passion of race fans until she became active on social media.
It's not the comments from fans (and non-fans) that made her realize her impact on people. It's the photos. On Halloween.
"When I see it the most is Halloween when people dress up in the GoDaddy uniform -- all the kids and some adults, too," Patrick said. "Those [adults] are more entertaining, usually. The kids are the coolest. They have chosen to cheer for me."
Of all the drivers in NASCAR, more people choose to follow Patrick, who has more than 1.21 million followers and is considered a role model to many as the highest-finishing woman in the Indianapolis 500 (third) and Daytona 500 (eighth). Dale Earnhardt Jr., at 994,100 followers, should eclipse the 1 million mark later this year. Jimmie Johnson (731,300), Jeff Gordon (713,300), Brad Keselowski (563,100), Kevin Harvick (548,200) and Kasey Kahne (513,200) all had more than 500,000 as of Wednesday morning.
Patrick said she doesn't use a whole lot of strategy in posting her tweets. She doesn't get into many conversations on Twitter because those are just hard for her to follow. She said she just posts what she thinks is fun, keeping it "simple and doable," often posting photos of her dog or of her life with her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"I probably don't do every facet of social media like everyone does," Patrick said. "I just do it my way, which is what I feel comfortable with. ... I like to look through and have instant stimulation by whatever they're saying, so that's kind of how I do it."
There certainly was strategy when Comcast decided it wanted Patrick to be its first driver for its "sign my tweet" program, in which fans are asked to tweet a celebrity asking for an autograph. Comcast then chooses 400 tweets and prints each of them on poster-sized sheets of paper. The celebrity then signs each one, which is sent to the fan who sent the tweet.
Comcast has used NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham Jr., who has more than 390,000 followers, as well as retired Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith (496,000 followers) and actress Kate del Castillo (2.39 million followers) in past campaigns.
Now it was Patrick's turn, and it was a no-brainer, according to Comcast sports marketing senior director Matt Lederer, who said "you can tell that she's trying to connect with her fans in a natural way." People tweeted her a variety of messages as well as photos including ones of her with them at races, of their kids all in her gear and of Patrick from one of her non-racing photo shoots.
Patrick, who needs sponsorship for next season, knows the importance companies place in social media. It also makes her think before she tweets: Sometimes she'll wonder whether a tweet might turn off a prospective sponsor if she gushes about one of its competitors.
But it goes back to being authentic. And sometimes that can gain a sponsor.
"There's times you tweet you like something, and then eventually they come through and they want to partner up with you because the authenticity has been laid," Patrick said as she finished up signing the posters. "The groundwork is there for why the relationship can move forward and can be something bigger."
Social media also remains the most real way for an athlete to get a message across immediately to the fans.
"I'm always a little resistant [to social media], but it's the day and age of social media," said the 33-year-old Patrick. "I've realized more over time how it's a really positive thing and how it can also be a fun thing.
"It can also be nice to show people what you really think or how you really are and be able to connect to people immediately with your own words."
It works the other way, too, because fans can connect with the athletes, allowing the athletes to know what their fans are thinking. But it can also lead to more questions.
"Where do kids learn about me and how do they decide to cheer for me?" Patrick said. "Is it purely independent or is it through their parents or family or friends? I don't know.
"I'm always curious about how they choose to cheer for me -- and therein lies them putting my suit on to dress like me for Halloween. I think it is one of the ultimate compliments."