Everyone seems to have an opinion about Danica Patrick, the only woman driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Her fans (and there are many) see her as a groundbreaking pioneer, fighting hard to make her way in a man's world.
Her detractors (and there are many of those as well) see her at best as a shameless opportunist who is much more of a marketing machine than a competent driver and at worst as little more than a pretty face who has absolutely no business being behind the wheel in NASCAR.
Which is it?
Well, that might just be the wrong question to ask. Because the truth is that the answer doesn't really matter, except that it's all part of the Patrick package.
What really matters to the folks deciding to put her in a driver's seat is that Patrick still moves the needle when it comes to generating interest in herself and whichever series in which she's driving.
Her eighth-place finish in the recent Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway was proof of this once again. If, say, her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., had finished eighth, it might have been mentioned here or there as an aside or a one-line note—but when Patrick finishes eighth in an event, she generates interest.
She's going to get interviewed on television (and she did). She's going to have stories written about her (and she did).
"It's been a crazy day," she told USA Today and other media outlets after the race. "I can't believe we finished eighth."
Uh, she was not alone.
The attention it brought on was the same as the last time she finished in the top 10 in a Sprint Cup race, which was at Kansas earlier this season, when she finished a career-high seventh. Put her latest finish at Daytona with that, and it gives Patrick a grand total of three top-10 finishes in 64 career Cup starts.
She has zero top-five finishes in the Cup Series. She has one in 61 career starts in the Nationwide Series.
That's hardly the stuff usually worthy of being big news.
But there is this: Patrick is a master at connecting with fans, especially women and parents of young women who idolize her. No matter how bad she may currently be at her job, she's still better than any other woman who has ever dared to attempt it.
And there are those who should know within the sport who continue to insist that she is getting better all the time—including one guy who really matters: her boss at Stewart-Haas Racing, fellow driver and SHR co-owner Tony Stewart.
"She's making progress. She's gaining on it," Stewart told Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com back in May. "You know, there's no ginormous leaps and bounds, but Kansas was proof that she's making gains and getting better. I think she's learning more as a driver, what these cars like and dislike. It's a process, especially a year like this. ... It's just another hurdle for her to cross because of the new packages in the cars. I think she's doing a pretty good job, considering."
But more than anything, Patrick still moves the needle of public interest and opinion.
Whether people love her or can't stand her, she's polarizing. No one can look away. People watch, maybe more of all the commercials she's in than when she's actually in her race car. But they notice. The media takes note of everything she does.
And Patrick is a master at playing to it, while admittedly working very hard to at least attempt to get better at her craft (meaning driving, not the marketing end of it that she long ago mastered).
That's why she's worth millions in sponsorship money she can bring in to an organization, and money is what talks loudest in a sport where much of it has been disappearing in recent years. All Patrick really has to do to continue to stay front and center in the sport, and gainfully employed, is finish eighth in a race once in a while.
Unless otherwise noted, all information for this article was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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