Danica already a NASCAR force

Media and fans surround Danica Patrick on pit road before the Nationwide Series race at Daytona. AP Photo/John Raoux

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A white Chevy Tahoe pulls up in front of Danica Patrick's trailer at 11:45 a.m., 15 minutes before she goes on stage, and Patrick isn't quite sure what to expect. Of course it was crazy on the IndyCar circuit. In the days after her near-win at the Indianapolis 500 five years ago, everybody seemed to have a Danica sighting. She's in the porta-potty by the beer tent! Look, she's jogging in the infield! But this is NASCAR -- bigger cars, bigger flocks -- and Patrick is nervous.

They'll want to know everything about her at this fan meet-and-greet, how her 5-foot-2, 100-pound body adjusts to the pedals and gears; what she had for breakfast, which, by the way, was four egg whites and a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon. Patrick scurries out of her trailer, into the rain and hops in the backseat of the SUV. Her black ponytail is frizz-proof; her $10 million dollar face is fresh and perfect.

It's a blustery day in Daytona Beach, the kind that adds at least 30 seconds of hyperbole to a weatherman's forecast. But outside an auditorium near the track, a couple of dozen fans are pressed against a gate, drenched and peering into the windows.

"Ohhhh no," Patrick says, "there's people waiting, and they want me to sign."

She's ushered inside, asks five people for a pen and emerges a few minutes later. She signs every autograph. It's the day before Patrick's NASCAR debut, and one thing is clear: The storm is about to get bigger.

Her popularity

Somewhere, the endorsement gods -- forget that, all of NASCAR's execs -- are grinning. Last weekend, Danica Patrick crashed into a wall on Lap 68, giving her a 35th-place finish in the Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona. And an hour later outside the speedway, the lines in front of a trailer with Patrick merchandise were 15 deep. Tough-looking biker dudes waved $100 bills, pointing to black-and-green Danica T-shirts on a wall. Kids and dads patiently waited 20 minutes to secure one little hat with a No. 7 on it. It should be noted that just next door, a trailer with Jimmie Johnson merchandise had roughly one-third of Patrick's foot traffic. Johnson is the four-time reigning Sprint Cup champion.

It's a fascinating phenomenon, Danica Nation, and it's mushrooming at the perfect time for NASCAR, when money is tight and endorsements are hard to come by. Patrick's appeal hits just about every demographic, from casual female fans to hard-core gearheads. Two weekends ago, when she finished sixth in an ARCA race, the telecast drew 87 percent more viewers than the year before.

If she does well in NASCAR, some of the sport's followers say her popularity could soar to the stratosphere of the Derek Jeters and Peyton Mannings of the marketing world -- rare air for a female athlete.

"If she's successful and earns the respect of that whole community, the sky's the limit," says Eric Wright, vice president of research and development at Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., a firm that analyzes the scope of sponsorships across all forms of media. "She's already a marketing phenom right now with very limited success. I think she might rewrite how we look at that sort of thing if she has success on the track.

"I don't know if we've had a female athlete competing in such a male-dominated area like that who has all the marketing things you'd want in a person. She's well-spoken. She's articulate. She's savvy."

Despite all that polish, even Patrick was taken aback by the hysteria last week at Daytona. So were the other drivers. Regan Smith tweeted that "maybe espn could cover danica on espn 2 and the other 50 plus cars on espn classic or somthing." A handful of random onlookers hung near the garage, trying to peek in, occasionally whispering "Is she in there?" When Patrick got caught up in a 12-car wreck that most NASCAR gurus agreed she couldn't have avoided, a gaggle swarmed the wreckage in the garage -- half media, half worried fans.

A short while later, when Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s mangled car was towed into the garage, it generated nary a gawker.

"I just wanted her to finish. I didn't care where she placed," said Danica fan Sherry Messler after the Patrick post-wreck ruckus finally cleared.

"I think she appeals to everybody. I mean, I saw a 60-year-old man wearing her stuff, and then you see a 4-year-old kid wearing her gear. I think everybody likes her because she's not a girl driver. She's just a driver."

Why they like her

The Gronewold family arrived at the track early Saturday morning on a mission. They would plunk down hundreds of dollars to buy matching GoDaddy.com jackets, the ones that proudly support Danica. They would find their place in the stands and watch her take another step toward history.

Jerry Gronewold, the graying head of the household, came up with the idea to go to Daytona. He's driven on dirt tracks around Worthington, Minn., for 40 years now, "before dirt was brown," his son-in-law jokes. Jerry watches NASCAR every week. He says he follows Patrick because he thinks she outdrives the guys.

"She don't take no s--- from them," he says. "Most girls, they hit 'em and they go away. Well, she doesn't. She comes back and hits 'em right back. That's what I like about her."

Same goes for Jerry's son, Corey. He's a red-blooded 23-year-old male, but insists his interest in Patrick has nothing to do with the steamy GoDaddy.com shower ads. No, Corey says, she's got talent, and he naturally roots for the underdog.

Still, it's a delicate balance that Patrick somehow conquers, seamlessly shifting from pinup girl to terror on the track. Patrick isn't necessarily considered a trailblazer in racing history. A number of women drove similar trails around oval tracks decades ago. But none of them won an IndyCar race like Patrick has, and none of them came close to matching her universal appeal.

"I think we're still wrestling as a society trying to deal with the female angle of all that," says former IndyCar driver Lyn St. James. "How can she be sexy, how can she be pretty -- fill in the blank -- and still be that animal, aggressive, tough, and going for it?"

St. James doesn't doubt Patrick's toughness. She met her 13 years ago, when Danica was a 14-year-old kid trying to learn and get noticed in her hometown of Rockford, Ill. The first thing St. James noticed was young Danica's firm handshake. From there, Patrick went to England to drive in the Formula Vauxhall series, took repeated knocks, struggled to earn respect.

"It's hard to tell a 14- or 15-year-old how tough you need to be," St. James says. "I didn't want her to lose who she was, her genuineness."

That All-American girl persona, St. James says, no doubt endears her to fans today. When Patrick burst onto the open-wheel scene in 2005, taking a surprise lead for 19 laps in the Indy 500, NASCAR psychologist Jack Stark noticed something in the stands. The women and little girls in the crowd began to stand up and clap. It was almost as if a silent faction was vocal and riveted for the first time.

Melanie Meyer, a NASCAR fan from New York who came to Daytona with her fiancée, rolls her eyes at the notion that Patrick's fans are a bunch of drooling frat boys or Internet geeks.

"A lot of people are buying [gear] for their daughters and girlfriends," she says. "It's very inspirational for women."

When she burst onto the scene

OK, so this isn't the first brush with Danica Mania. A couple of weeks after that exhilarating fourth-place finish at Indy in 2005, Patrick rolled into Texas Motor Speedway and was swallowed up in a sea of fans and media.

"The only thing I can compare it to is what I saw of the Beatles coming to the U.S.," says Eddie Gossage, the track's president. "We, of course, tried to capitalize on it any way we could. It was just an amazing thing to witness the almost hysteria over this young lady who a month before nobody had really heard of.

"She really burst onto the scene. And she played the role, played it to the hilt."

Gossage says Patrick wasn't the easiest person to deal with back then. She was 23, overwhelmed, and came across as uncooperative with the media, choosing not to talk to them unless it fit into certain schedule situations. It was a switch for Gossage to deal with after decades of watching open-wheel drivers beg for coverage.

But in hindsight, Gossage says, it was probably Patrick's way of controlling the hysteria around her.

"I can tell you she's grown up a lot since 2005," Gossage says.

"She's a lot smarter now. You can hear it in her voice on the radio during races. She's grown up a bunch, she really has. She's smart. And very, very savvy."

Proving herself under pressure

The sport of racing, St. James says, is tough and fickle. There's little loyalty and constant scrutiny. Deals come together and fizzle, contracts are made and broken. Patrick won't be able to prove herself with one Top 5 finish. "She's going to have to earn it again and again," St. James says. "You're evaluated every race. It's the way the sport is."

The thing is, she isn't expected to be an instant NASCAR success. The leap from open-wheel is big enough that only a handful of drivers, including Juan Pablo Montoya, have fully mastered it. But her NASCAR brethren have, for the most part, accepted her, even if it's meant taking a backseat in the headlines.

Joyce Julius & Associates crunched the numbers on Patrick's ARCA race and found that her name was mentioned 25 more times than the winning driver.

It leads to more eyes on Patrick, and, inevitably, more pressure.

"There are so many popular, talented and well-followed drivers in the series," Patrick says, "that it is amazing to have such attention. But I also feel pretty lucky for that, too.

"I guess I would hope that [some day] people would look back and say, 'Wow, she was a talented driver, a great driver.' And beyond that, I hope that there will be things they remember me for that aren't about racing that I do after I'm done or while I'm still here racing. I don't know what those things are yet. I hope that there's something beyond just racing."

What to call her?

On the eve of her Nationwide debut, Patrick's people tried to keep things light. They wanted to come up with a nickname for Danica. All the great drivers have them, and Patrick wants to be one of those guys.

"Wonder Boy," "Smoke" and "Junior" were already taken, so one of her PR people floated another possibility … "Krispy Kreme." She'd never even tasted the donut until a couple of months ago, because when you dabble in swimsuit photo shoots, it's best not to even introduce yourself to temptation. But Patrick finally indulged, then her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., sent her seven dozen of them, and the Krispy Kreme in Daytona piled on by making special No. 7 donuts.

Possibly sensing a sugar rush, Patrick quickly nixed the moniker.

"I just tweeted that I needed a nickname," says Patrick, who asked her 88,780 Twitter followers to make suggestions. "Except that they're going to be mean, I'm sure. I read something the other night. Somebody said, 'I hope you crash.'"

Patrick did crash, and it didn't matter. Danica Mania churned on. It will be at full speed in Fontana, Calif., this weekend, and in the other 11 stops she's scheduled to make as she eases into stock cars. This is where the masses gather to wear jackets littered with decals of energy drinks, Web sites and candy bars. This is where true stardom really begins.

Is Patrick ready? Her swelling fan base is. Florida local Joel Martin stood outside a merchandise trailer Sunday, a day after the race, because he had to buy Danica T-shirts for his young boys. When she crashed, the boys were glued to the TV until they found out she was OK. They didn't care that she didn't finish the race.

Martin's 5-year-old summed up why they watched.

"I like Danica," he says, "because she's hot."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.