Danica Patrick: Sprint Cup Rookie Gives NASCAR, Daytona 500 Breath of Fresh Air

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Danica Patrick: Sprint Cup Rookie Gives NASCAR, Daytona 500 Breath of Fresh Air
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Danica Patrick didn't make any waves at the Daytona 500, remaining cautious on the way to an eighth-place finish. With speeds at times approaching 200 mph, sometimes that's a good thing.

For a NASCAR rookie like Patrick, just beginning her first full season in the sport, merely holding her own with veteran greats like Jimmie Johnson beats making waves every time. She raced to finish, not to win.  

Success at Daytona often comes in the form of not failing. Avoiding trouble, usually a multi-car wreck, is half the battle. It's a 500-mile battle of attrition, and Patrick duked it out with the best of them.

She fit right in on the track, looking like an experienced professional as she navigated a crowded field, avoiding a couple of big crashes that took out more than a dozen cars over the course of the day.

She followed up on her breakthrough pole win in qualifying by carving out another piece of NASCAR history in the race.  She became the first female driver to lead a lap at the Daytona 500 when she led the pack on the 90th lap and held the lead for five total laps.

However, Patrick stood out most off the track, where her pole win ignited coverage of NASCAR's opening race.

She was already a popular driver, twice finishing in the top five at the venerable Indianapolis 500. And her television commercials with Go Daddy were seen by millions during Super Bowl Sundays. But following her pole win last Sunday, everywhere you turned, Patrick was there.

Todd Warshaw/Getty

Everyone in the sport expected plenty of attention directed Patrick's way. But no one quite predicted such a media onslaught. With Patrick at the helm, NASCAR was the top trend on Google, beating out any other search as anticipation built for the big race. For NASCAR, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air.

For years, the knock on NASCAR has been the homogeneity of it all. Racers came and racers went, but as the years passed, nothing really changed. Just the sponsor on the hood.

Searching for a scruffy-looking white guy with a two-day beard and a rainbow Tide ball cap? You'd come to the right place.

Anything else? Well, you were out of luck. Jeff Gordon was the closest thing to exotic diversity you'd find out on the track, coming all the way from California to compete with the Southern boys in their own sport.

Slowly but inexorably, times are changing. Young girls watching racing with their brothers and fathers can do more than just dream about marrying their favorite NASCAR driver these days—they can dream about being her.

"I think you can only lead by example, and I don't necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world," Patrick told the assembled media this week. Patrick continued:

What I'm trying to say is, if you have a talent for something, to not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Don't feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Just ignore that and let it be about what your potential is.

With 35 (36 including the All-Star race) races left to go this season, it's still unclear just what Patrick's potential is. But know this: She turned a lot of heads this week, announcing to the NASCAR world that she was there to do more than shoot scantily clad commercials and promote the sport on television. She was playing for real.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Her goal is to be the best in the world. And if fellow racers were taking her for granted, well, they likely have her on their radars after her historic win in qualifying and a solid performance in the race.

Patrick doesn't want moral victories. She wasn't happy just to be there.

"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl," Patrick said (h/t New York Times). "...I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope that I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make.”

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