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NASCAR feeling Patrick's impact, even before her biggest race

By David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
February 26, 2012 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Sunday, Danica Patrick will become the third woman to appear in the Daytona 500
  • Patrick's spot in the race is secure despite her crash at Thursday's qualifying event
  • The former IndyCar driver could achieve the best finish by a female in the Daytona 500
  • Caraviello: Patrick's Daytona debut is the most anticipated since Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s

Daytona Beach, Florida (CNN) -- It's easy to find Danica Patrick at Daytona International Speedway. Just look for the pack of photographers, the whirring of their cameras capturing the every move of NASCAR's newest star.

And that's what she is, even though she won't have started a race in the sport's top series until Sunday, when she will become only the third woman to appear in the Daytona 500. But Patrick's relative lack of experience in the NASCAR realm -- she's started only a few dozen events to this point, all of them in lower circuits -- hasn't stopped the former open-wheel standout from having an impact larger than even some more experienced and more established drivers on North America's premier racing circuit.

The driver of the bright green GoDaddy-backed race car also drives television ratings and merchandise sales. She's an almost constant topic of conversation among those in the media and the grandstand. NASCAR hopes her crossover appeal translates into more ticket sales and a broader fan base.

And all of it may be just the beginning, given that Patrick is only now venturing into the elite Sprint Cup Series, and carries with her a sea of untapped potential -- on the track as well as off.

NASCAR.com: Danica's Sprint Cup plans

"It's great for the sport," said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. "Who doesn't want to see a female driver come in here and be able to race with the guys and do well and be marketable? It's great for the sport."

The fascination with Danica Patrick

Success on the race track, of course, will ultimately determine how much of an impact Patrick can make. For the past two seasons Patrick has competed in a limited schedule in NASCAR's No. 2 circuit, the Nationwide Series, while maintaining her full-time status in open-wheel cars and chasing the dream of an Indianapolis 500 victory.

Now she's solely a NASCAR driver, racing full-time and for a championship on the Nationwide tour in a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. She'll also drive in 10 races on the sport's premier division, including Sunday's Daytona 500, in a vehicle fielded by defending series champion Tony Stewart.

NASCAR.com: Danica's new chapter begins sooner than later

Even in limited appearances thus far, she's shown signs of progress in the heavier, full-bodied cars, which allow for a degree of aggression on the race track that seems to fit Patrick's feisty nature. Her fourth-place finish in a Nationwide event at Las Vegas last year was the best ever for a female at the sport's national level, and she placed 10th in her most recent Nationwide race at Daytona.

Patrick walked away from a thunderous crash in a qualifying event Thursday at Daytona, but her spot in the race was already guaranteed. Sunday she will chase the best finish by a woman in the Daytona 500, which is 11th by Janet Guthrie in 1980. On a Daytona track where the aerodynamic draft helps to equalize competition, her car owner thinks she's capable of much more.

"Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year [at this time]?" Stewart said, referring to the 21-year-old driver whose unlikely Daytona victory stunned NASCAR last year.

"Anything can happen here; it is anybody's ballgame," Stewart said. "She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did. ... There is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."

Frenzy of attention

To this point, Patrick has been able to move the needle despite only dipping a toe into NASCAR. The immense popularity that made her the biggest star of the IndyCar ranks, and magnified her attempts to win the Indianapolis 500, has been evident from her first days in a stock car.

Television ratings for her 2010 Nationwide debut at Daytona were up 33 percent over the same race from a year earlier, according to The Nielsen Co. Of the 13 Nationwide events she started in 2010, 11 experienced increased viewership from the previous season. Last year, as Patrick became a more regular figure around the NASCAR scene, ratings increased for half of her 12 Nationwide starts.

Now that she's set to make the most anticipated Daytona 500 debut since Earnhardt Jr., and is running full time for the championship on the Nationwide Series, those numbers figure to be on the upswing yet again.

"She is someone who clearly has brought new fans to the sport," said Rich Feinberg, vice president for motorsports at ESPN, which broadcasts NASCAR races. "She represents appeal to a younger demographic, which is an important area for us to grow our viewership base, and she's a darn good race car driver."

The Daytona 500 already easily the most-watched NASCAR race of the year, and "Sunday's 500 will definitely be the largest audience to ever see her race," said Mark Dyer, senior vice president at International Management Group and one of Patrick's agents. "... She's had mega-audiences see her play a part in a television commercial, but she's never had the kind of audience that's going to see her race Sunday afternoon."

In terms of merchandising sales, Patrick ranked in the top 15 among all drivers last season, according to the NASCAR.com Superstore. Heading into the Daytona 500 she has moved into the top 10. Nearly 80 percent of NASCAR's Fan Council, a feedback group comprised of 12,000 avid followers of the sport, believes Patrick is good for the series. She ranks in the top five in terms of awareness of NASCAR drivers among the U.S. population, according to NASCAR.

But statistics don't capture the essence of it all. Witnessing the frenzy of attention that surrounds Patrick at a major race track like Daytona sharpens the focus on what NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps calls the "heightened awareness" she brings to every event she's involved in.

That's certainly the case in the days leading up to the Daytona 500, where her every move has been tracked by photographers, reporters and fans. Patrick received one of the largest ovations during driver introductions prior to Thursday's qualifying races at Daytona, further proof of her acceptance among the NASCAR faithful. And all the NASCAR races she's competed in to date still don't equal a full season.

"I think you have to take all things in account," Phelps said. "Is she responsible for every ratings increase? ... Probably not. Her merchandise sales are what they are, and they're robust, and they're going to be even better this year, obviously with the Sprint Cup ride part-time. So it's hard to quantify what that effect is. You can certainly qualify it, because you can see it. You can see the attention that she gets from a fan perspective, the attention that she gets from a media perspective, the fact that she's able to get sponsors to want to be with here and partner with her like GoDaddy. There's clearly something there."

There has been since her first days in major open-wheel racing, when Patrick's tenacity and close calls at Indianapolis -- she's finished third and fourth in the Indy 500 -- made her one of that discipline's few real American stars. Since making the move to NASCAR, that level of attention has increased proportionally to the stock-car league's higher profile. But Patrick seems used to it all.

"I enjoy being different. I enjoy being unique," she said. "I enjoy it all, I really do. I choose to look at the positives that come with it instead of the negatives, and that it's a balance. ... Part [of that is] because I'm used to it, and the other part is, what's not to like? I'm followed well, and I have lots of great fans, and I'm always grateful when people write nice things about me. I feel good."

Patrick's influence even extends outside the NASCAR sphere -- Tuesday she became only the fourth NASCAR driver, and the first without a championship, ever to address the National Press Club in Washington. "She gets NASCAR into places where it's hard for them to go sometimes," Dyer said. Nationwide uses her as a spokesperson, and her crossover appeal has translated into a higher level of brand awareness for the company.

"I'm not going to say other drivers don't have the ability to do that," said Jennifer Hanley, Nationwide senior vice president. "Obviously, her Indy experience, she brings that with her. She's talented, she's passionate about what she does. But it also, I think, helps that she's different and she's a woman. That just works well with our brand, and I think it works well with consumers, too."

All eyes on her

It all starts, though, on the asphalt. Daytona suits Patrick, partly because she's at her best on big, fast tracks, and partly because the 2.5-mile facility demands the use of restrictor plates that limit the cars' horsepower -- a fact that tends to bunch up the field and determine a winner based on positioning and aerodynamics as much as skill. Regardless of her performance at Daytona, her real challenge may come in the weeks ahead, when NASCAR moves on to a variety of different-sized tracks that will place more of a premium on experience.

"A lot of eyes are on her," said Dale Jarrett, a former NASCAR champion who is now an ESPN analyst. "I'll be quite honest, I was very skeptical whenever she came over. Could she handle these cars, get in and mix it up? I'm a fan. I think she can do it. Is she going to go out and set the world on fire? That's going to be difficult to do, because she's up against the best in the world."

IMG's Dyer said that while Patrick's goals aren't gender-specific -- like every driver, she wants to win races and championships -- she realizes how significant it would be to become the first woman to win a race at NASCAR's national level. Given how male-dominated NASCAR has been for most of its 64-year history, a Patrick victory at Daytona could have a sports-transcending impact not unlike Tiger Woods' victory at the Masters in 1997. Given how popular and marketable she is already, a victory in any national-series event could be an unprecedented boost to the sport.

"I think there certainly is that ability," NASCAR's Phelps said. "She's a crossover star now. ... She's already a sensation. If she starts winning races, that's only going to add fuel to the fire, to be sure."

A crossover star like Patrick -- and to a similar degree extreme sports athlete Travis Pastrana, who makes his Nationwide Series debut in April -- is important to NASCAR because she's capable of attracting television viewers and potential new fans who might not otherwise have gravitated toward the sport. That role can bring with it equal degrees of pressure and expectation, but Patrick said she doesn't feel any of it.

"I truly like don't feel like anything more gets put on me," she said. "I feel like there's a lot of hopes, but I don't feel the pressure that ... I have to do something. Trust me, I put in my head enough thoughts that I have to do certain things, not all of them which I share with you. But I don't feel like that. I feel I'm very lucky to be in the situation I'm in. I feel lucky to be unique and different, and I feel lucky to have the fan base that I do. And if that helps in any way, or we can work together to make it better, then that's just a win-win."

If anything, Patrick seems to embrace the factors that make her stand out in major auto racing, and understand that attention comes with it.

"I don't know that anybody at NASCAR sees her as the end-all and be-all on growing," Dyer said. "She's amazingly grounded and focused. When you talk about pressure, the pressure she feels is to keep improving on the race track. The marketing stuff she does on behalf of GoDaddy and her other partners, and the stuff she does on behalf of NASCAR and the tracks -- she doesn't really feel any pressure to do that. She has a lot of marketing savvy. She has a great judgment savvy on what can move the needle for everybody involved."

Added NASCAR's Phelps: "I don't think she's weighed down by it at all. I think she's actually lifted up by it."

That certainly seems the case today. Not only does NASCAR stand to benefit from the increased attention Patrick brings, but the driver herself has completely embraced stock-car racing, despite piloting open-wheel machines for most of her career.

Dyer said Patrick is happier now that she can focus solely on her NASCAR program, and although she hasn't ruled out a run at the Indianapolis 500 every now and then, she wants to retire as a NASCAR driver. "This has been very much a long-term plan," Dyer added, one that will continue with a full-time Sprint Cup effort next season.

For all the focus on Patrick's first Daytona 500, it is just that -- a beginning. There are many more races to run, many more things to learn, many more plans to be set into action. There are potentially trophies to be won, and barriers to be broken down, and young female drivers to be inspired. And only then will Danica Patrick's full potential in NASCAR begin to be realized.

"There's no doubt in my mind that winning is the goal, and the ultimate goal is to be a champion in this series, and not just break through because she's a female driver," Nationwide's Hanley said. "... She made the choice to do this. When she does this, that's certainly an expectation people have. I think she certainly has the ability and talent to do that, and it's going to be fun to watch this year."

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