As 2012's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series came to a close, Danica Patrick had little to show for her inaugural stint among the word's very best stock car racers.
In 10 races, she managed a grand total of zero finishes in the top 10. Even her best race, a 17th place finish in Phoenix, was mired in controversy. Her lime green Chevrolet limped to the finish, its leaking oil collecting a number of other racers in a final-lap crash.
Her poor performance on American racing's grandest stage re-opened the book on Patrick, one that she surely hoped had closed with a 2008 IndyCar win at the Japan 300. In that race, she beat open-wheel legend Helio Castroneves by just under six seconds, marking her first and only win in 114 IndyCar starts.
"It’s a long time coming," Patrick said after that race. "Finally."
The win lifted a huge burden. Serving as one 300-mile catharsis, the race removed the weight of the racing world from her narrow shoulders. In a way, it legitimized her entire career—a seven-year roller coaster that saw her vaulted to fame and fortune not quite commensurate with her racing skill.
While many casual fans embraced racing's attempt at diversity, the hardcore fans were more cynical. To many, she was just a pretty girl in a fast car. Critics claimed Danica was competent at best, a marketing ploy at worst. The comparison point was Anna Kournikova, the Russian tennis star who, like Patrick, had more commercials than wins.
Count CBS Sport's columnist Gregg Doyel among those not impressed, even in victory:
The IRL is the junior varsity of racing, is what I'm saying. Danica Patrick finally won herself a JV race, and that's good for her, and it's a neat story. The first woman to do anything—the first man to do anything, too—is always cool. But let's not take this too far, OK?
It sometimes seemed like Patrick was a GoDaddy.com pitchwoman who happened to race cars.
Funny how a win can change that perception, at least among those without Doyel's carefully honed skepticism. Automobile blog Jaloponik opined at the time:
Finally, people will be forced to look at Danica Patrick as something other than a piece of meat. Well, she did do that Sports Illustrated photo shoot, so you can probably still look at her like a piece of meat — just now you'll also have to realize she's a piece of meat that's faster than you, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and your brother Sal.
In a nutshell, those are the prevailing views of Patrick. Fans are either too impressed, almost condescendingly so, or incapable of being impressed, no matter how successful she might become on the track.
If you love Danica Patrick then you obviously know nothing about NASCAR! #Sucks— Katie Lukefahr (@KatieElisabeth9) February 18, 2013
It's a dichotomy that hasn't disappeared as Patrick has transitioned from Indy racing to NASCAR.
"I've heard a lot about how, if they had a fast race car, anybody could do what she's done. Well, I don't know about that," NASCAR on TNT analyst Larry McReynolds told Bleacher Report. "She still has to do her job."
McReynolds knows a few things about racing cars, once serving as the crew chief to the late, great Dale Earnhardt Sr. He believes there's more to success than just having the fast machine Danica was provided by Stewart-Hass racing.
Stock car driving is an art. From day to day, even in the midst of a single race, the car is changing.
For drivers like Patrick, coming over to NASCAR from open wheel Indy car racing, that's usually the biggest adjustment. If IndyCar is classical music, NASCAR is jazz. A proven commodity in IndyCar is still just a rookie when it comes to the grueling world of stock car racing.
Patrick, it seemed, needed to prove herself all over again.
"She's been very vocal about that and I've learned a lot listening to her," McReynolds said. "The good thing about Danica Patrick is that she's humble. She knows her weaknesses. She knows what she needs to work on.
"It's not like she's rocked back on her heels and said 'You know I'm an Indy 500 driver. Y'all just need to make the car right for me and I'll be as good as anybody out there.' She knows the things she needs to continue to work on. She's like a sponge. She learns quickly. She pays attention. She listens. She watches. She's really going about it in the right way."
This past weekend, that hard work paid off. Patrick put her name into the headlines for a positive reason, a first in her NASCAR career, winning the pole at the Daytona 500.
"This is what I'm supposed to be doing, getting the most out of the car and myself," Patrick told Dan Patrick. "Definitely here at Daytona, it's very much about the cars. I'm just lucky enough that I had the fastest ride out there and got to turn left and hold it flat."
Winning the pole at most races only allows a couple of days to reflect. At Daytona, there's an entire week to ponder the significance of success.
"Sitting on the pole, or being faster in qualifying at any track is a big accomplishment," McReynolds told Bleacher Report. "Just like on any given Sunday, when you have 12 to 18 teams that can win, really the same holds true for qualifying. You've got 12, 15, a dozen and a half drivers and teams that can sit on the pole.
"So for her to do that, it's big for her. It's big for the sport. I've watched a lot of TV since Sunday and it doesn't matter if you're watching Speed, ESPN, or the Weather Channel. they had something about it. It's created a buzz like nothing I've seen in a long, long time around our sport."
Creating buzz has never been a problem for Patrick. But is that enough? Did winning the pole at Daytona do the trick?
It's a grand achievement on a grand stage, but is it enough to earn Patrick respect? Not just backhanded compliments like "she's pretty good... for a woman." Honest to goodness respect.
"There are still going to be the naysayers," McReynolds said. "And if she wins this race on Sunday there are still going to be naysayers. There are still going to be people who say 'NASCAR let her get away with something just so they can have her sit on the pole.' If she wins the race on Sunday, people are going to say 'Well, that's just Daytona.' There's always going to be naysayers.
"But I think people are starting to take her more serious. No question, when she first came along they thought she was a novelty. A pretty face but just a big publicity deal. I think she has shown that 'I'm here, I'm serious about doing this and I'm going to pour everything I've got into it.'
"Is she going to be a championship contender? I don't know. Is she going to win races? I don't know that either. Nobody knows that. But I like that she's just setting small goals. One week, one race at a time."
Does this qualifying win bode well for Danica's 2013 season?
Winning the pole, taken out of context, is not necessarily a sure sign of success. After all, drivers like David Gilliland also won the pole at Daytona. And before you rush to Wikipedia, I'll save you the trip—his career never amounted to much.
In fact, winning the pole is no guarantee of success at the Daytona 500 . The last driver to win the race after earning that honor was Dale Jarrett back in 2000. The average finish for the last 10 pole winners is a dismal 19th.
I don't want to take anything away from Patrick. She drove a car at an average speed of over 196 miles per hour. On that day, no one was faster.
But McReynolds cautions fans not to read to much into this limited sample size of success.
"We know that running a single lap in qualifying versus being out there with 42 other cars in the 500 Sunday—it's a totally different animal," McReynolds said. "You're three wide and eight rows deep at over 200 miles per hour. You have to worry about the draft and it's very easy to get caught up in someone else's issue.
"Daytona and Talladega are our two biggest and fastest tracks. They're an animal of their own compared to our other 32 races. If she runs well here. If she wins the race here—is it relevant to the next four races we run? Absolutely not. Other than confidence? And momentum? Nothing relates."
In other words, just as fans shouldn't diminish her accomplishment, nor should they build it into something it isn't. It's a good start to a long season. Nothing more, nothing less.