Will Danica End Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Run as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver?

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IDecember 10, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 11:  Nascar driver Danica Patrick presents award for Best Team onstage during the 2012 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Danica Patrick has already notched one NASCAR popularity award in 2012. She now begins her full-time stint in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series where she could easily rout Dale Earnhardt, Jr. from his reign as the sport's most popular driver.

Patrick was named NASCAR Nationwide Series most popular driver at the end of season awards banquet. The driver of the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports has only one full season in the second-tier series.

Patrick ran part-time schedules in the Nationwide series during 2010 and 2011. The 2012 season ended with her 10th in the point standing,  which was the highest finish for a female in a NASCAR national series.

The driver of the No. 7 failed to win any races during 2012. She started 33 races with four finishes in the top 10.

Patrick will begin a full-time schedule behind the wheel of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart Haas Racing in 2013. She may drive a limited schedule for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide ride.

There seems to be little correlation between Patrick's performance and popularity. She obviously doesn't need to win races to keep her fans happy. The fact that she is a racer at heart attracts fans who want to see her do well.

The petite driver came from open-wheel cars to tackle the heavy, full-bodied cars of NASCAR. Trading paint was a foreign concept for her, but she is learning to move her competitors out of the way.

Patrick is feisty, and she doesn't want the boys of NASCAR to take advantage of her. In essence, she is trying to mark her territory.

Her plans don't always work out quite the way she intended. Her retaliation against Landon Cassill at Kansas Speedway resulted in her losing control of her car and hitting the wall.

Patrick progressed during the 10 Cup races she has been in during 2012. Her best finish was 17th at Phoenix. The goal was to log laps at some of the most difficult tracks on the circuit.

Earnhardt has continued to be NASCAR's most popular driver for 10 consecutive seasons. His fans stand strong behind him despite the 143-race winless streak which he broke with a win at Michigan in June.

Junior is a much different personality from Patrick with his simplicity and humbleness that endear him to his fans. Patrick is an obvious extrovert who speaks her mind and flaunts her femininity when not in a race car.

When it comes to racing, Patrick just wants to be known as a driver, not a female driver. Her racing goals provide encouragement for young females, but Patrick has had the mandatory financial backing to get her to the big leagues.

Patrick garners more than her share of criticism by those who think she doesn't deserve the notoriety or top-tier rides that she has in NASCAR.

Those who root for her to do well far outweigh her detractors. At any given race, the green GoDaddy.com racing merchandise is a top seller. It can be seen easily among the fans who wear Patrick racing apparel.

There are no lofty goals for Patrick to win any Cup races in 2013. Cracking the top 15 would be a good day for the No. 10 SHR team. She could be a contender at superspeedways where racing is a crapshoot.

Earnhardt could be in for another strong season in 2013. If he wins a few races, he will likely have a lock on being the most popular driver for an 11th straight time.

It really isn't a contest between Earnhardt and Patrick, but with the GoDaddy girl in the competition, fans just might vote her in and knock Junior from his 10-year streak.