I can see it now.
Danica Patrick, a huge smile on her face, being interviewed live on national television standing next to her bright green GoDaddy Chevrolet in Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway.
Danica Patrick has just won the Daytona 500!
No, it’s not a dream (or a nightmare, depending upon your opinion of her).
And it’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine.
Look, before you call me an idiot, think I’m crazy or even worse, let me explain.
I used to be the biggest Danica hater in sports journalism. Years ago, when I was a columnist for Yahoo! Sports and Patrick was racing in the IndyCar series, I was extremely critical of her. I never got personal, but eventually the hate email I received got so ugly that I stopped writing about her.
Then, Patrick moved to NASCAR and everything changed.
Almost overnight, the driver I found easy to criticize before was now taking on a new challenge, with a new attitude. She found a home with a team owner, Tony Stewart, whose path to stock cars also included years (and laps) behind the wheel of an IndyCar along with winning the series’ title in 1997.
It was a new beginning.
In NASCAR, Patrick’s drive to be the best was impressive. She absolutely wanted to be a great stock car racer. Admittedly, her first season in a Nationwide car was forgettable, as was her first full season in a Sprint Cup car in 2013.
Except for one race. The Daytona 500. The Crown Jewel of stock car racing. NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
She started on the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 having turned in a remarkable qualifying performance. She drove a near perfect lap, running quicker and smoother than former race winners Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick.
Of course, she had the car to do it. It was one of Stewart Haas Racing’s best cars, if not the best. Why not give Patrick everything she needed? Why not give her a car that was capable of starting from the pole? Team owner Stewart knew just how important it was for her to have a great showing—for her sponsors, her teammates and for the entire world.
How did she run a lap better than three-time (1997, 1999, 2005) Daytona 500 winner Gordon, who undoubtedly had a car as good, if not better prepared, than Patrick’s?
Patrick’s years behind the wheel of an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway may be the answer. The Speedway is a place that rewards consistency. The ability to drive lap after lap after lap, running the same line into each turn, without scrubbing off speed, can make the difference between a driver that wins at Indy and one that cannot.
It’s clear that Patrick was using that same discipline, learned while driving an IndyCar, in her stock car career.
"It's easy to come down here in your first or second year as a driver and clip the apron trying to run too tight a line or do something and scrub speed off," Stewart told the Associated Press after her pole run. "That's something she did, an awesome job. Watching her lap, she runs so smooth. ... She did her job behind the wheel, for sure."
But that was then. And this is now, 2014.
Are we to expect anything less from Patrick? Absolutely not.
We can expect that once again, she will be given a car that is capable of starting from the pole and winning the race.
Yes, winning the race.
The current rules package for Sprint Cup cars on restrictor plate tracks make for racing in big packs and for rapid and unexpected changes in position. A car running 20th can move into the top five in just one lap.
These kinds of rapid changes make it nearly impossible to handicap the Daytona 500. And more often than not, the winner emerges by using a passing maneuver coming off of the final turn. The sight of two or more cars rubbing against each other at nearly 200 mph as they race towards the checkers at Daytona has become commonplace.
Does Patrick have what it takes to make those maneuvers? Yes, I believe she does. And can she bump and bang her way to the front like one of the boys? Absolutely!
No one expected Patrick to win last year’s Daytona 500 even though she started from the pole. Her inexperience in certain situations would hurt her chances. However, she did place a very respectable eighth in only her second 500 mile plate race in a Sprint Cup car. More importantly, she gained invaluable knowledge about plate racing, her competition and the limits of her talent.
Her Achilles' heel last season was her limited knowledge (experience) of the how’s and why’s of drafting, a critical lesson every new NASCAR driver has to learn.
Patrick comes to Daytona this season with five more plate races (2 Nationwide and 3 Cup) under her belt. Those finishes (36th, 39th, 8th, 14th and 33rd twice) don’t reflect the laps she ran as the leader, a total of 10 (at Daytona) or the many laps running up front with the race leaders.
Her best finish in 2013 was her 8th place showing in the Daytona 500.
Patrick’s already figured out the part about not losing the draft on the final laps of the race.
It's a more experienced and more knowledgeable Danica Patrick that comes to Daytona this year.
And she’ll have one of NASCAR’s best ever helping her.
Of course, she can always count on direction from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who has several top-10 plate track finishes in both a Nationwide and Cup car.
Still think she's not a contender with a good shot at winning the Daytona 500 this year?