In My Opinion

Sorensen: All of Daytona is a stage and Danica is its star

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 23, 2013 

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NASCAR Nationwide Series driver (34) Danica Patrick on Thursday, February 21, 2013 at Daytona International Speedway. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— Kevin Harvick, you won two races the past eight days at Daytona International Speedway. So we the media have an obvious question.

What do you think of Danica Patrick?

Patrick, who turns 31 next month, is the only driver in Sunday’s Daytona 500 whose face adorns her hauler. It’s painted on both sides and is much bigger than she is. The only hauler with a face as big belongs to Kyle Busch. The face is a chocolate M&M.

Since becoming the first woman to win the pole for the 500 last Sunday Patrick has appeared on “Good Morning America,” “CBS Evening News,” “CBS This Morning,” “NBC Nightly News,” CNN and Fox. The London Telegraph wrote a story about her. The Telegraph did not write a story about Harvick.

Drive from Charlotte to Daytona Beach and by the time you hit the Georgia line you’ve heard Patrick interviewed on three separate ESPN shows – even if you spent half the trip listening to rock and blues.

Patrick’s representatives set up the first of the ESPN interviews after the host compared her to New York Jets’ quarterback Tim Tebow.

What did you say when you heard the comparison?

“Praise the Lord,” says Patrick.

“Only way to combat your critics is head on,” says one of her public relations representatives.

“Head on,” says Patrick.

The air bags better be good.

The more attention Patrick attracts, the more critics she attracts. Some don’t want a woman competing in a man’s sport (it’s not 2013 everywhere). Some contend she’s famous not for what she does but who she is. Think of a Kardashian doing 196.434 mph in a green Go Daddy Chevrolet.

Patrick has won one race, the 2008 Japan 300. Her average finish in 56 Nationwide Series starts before Saturday was 20.6.

Not everyone’s a fan

Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski told USA Today that when he sees Patrick he doesn’t think “there’s that girl.” He thinks “there’s that 30th-place driver.”

Jeff Burton, who never complains, and Harvick complained to the media about the column inches and TV time Patrick’s romance with fellow Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. generates.

I wasn’t a Patrick fan. I met her in 2009 during an appearance at Charlotte’s Music Factory and thought three things: She’s smaller than 5-2, the height at which she’s listed; she has the most powerful handshake of any woman I’ve known; and she’s arrogant.

We talked in the back of her hauler this week. Patrick wore jeans and, if you must know, her white shoes matched her white belt. She’s still small and her handshake is still big.

And she was gracious and funny and she considered questions before she answered them.

Maybe she’s more comfortable than when she broke in with NASCAR. Maybe she was having a bad evening in 2009. Maybe the relationship with Stenhouse has lightened her mood. Maybe she turned nice. Maybe it’s an act.

Maybe I was wrong the first time.

She dismisses her performance in qualifying and credits her team for the car they provided.

But Patrick often performs well in big events. She ran the Indianapolis 500 from 2005 through 2011 and finished, starting in 2005, fourth, eighth, eighth, 22nd, third, sixth and 10th.

Do you like pressure?

“I don’t know if I like it as much as I thrive on it,” says Patrick. “For some reason it doesn’t seem to be something that throws me off or takes away from what I can do. And in fact sometimes it seems to add and there seem to be moments that I perform or show better.”

Why?

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if when I get nervous it somehow taps into a certain hormonal” – she laughs – “mental position that helps me focus and be good. Or if for other people, perhaps, it takes them out of their game, they get distracted, they get flustered, they get nervous, and somehow that affects them in a negative way as opposed to being able to find focus in it.”

NASCAR is thrilled the world has focused on Patrick because it craves new and, especially, younger viewers. Stories sell. If she hadn’t started dating Stenhouse, NASCAR would have lined them up.

Patrick can’t bring back NASCAR’s glory days when new fans fell for a sport that never locked out its athletes because of a labor-management dispute.

What can Patrick do?

“You look at USA Today on Monday,” says Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “She was on the front page above the fold. That’s huge. So we’re outside just the sports pages. We’re digital, print, radio, television. Everybody is interested that she made history.”

Adds Phelps: “Her fan base cuts across male, female, young, old. It’s multi-cultural. She’s a marketing phenomenon.”

TV ratings rise

When Patrick started on the pole at last season’s Nationwide Series Drive4COPD 300 at Daytona, TV ratings jumped 38 percent. (Note: last season ESPN televised the race and the previous season less-watched ESPN2 did.)

Why is she a marketing phenomenon?

Watch. There’s four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon introducing his 5-year-old daughter Ella to Patrick after 500 qualifying. Gordon says Ella didn’t know women could race.

There’s five-time champion Jimmie Johnson bringing his 2-year-old daughter to Patrick’s bus.

There’s Carl Edwards bringing his little girl, who wears green Go Daddy shoes like Patrick’s.

Says Edwards to Patrick: “To her you’re like some mythical creature that doesn’t exist.”

There’s little girls, dozens, and some boys, outside her car in the Daytona garage. There’s crew chief Tony Gibson handing them each a lug nut on which he has scratched 10, Patrick’s number.

Kicker Olindo Mare, a former Carolina Panther, wore No. 10 for Patrick’s beloved Chicago Bears last season. Patrick grew up in Roscoe, Ill.

But she spent two weeks in Charlotte in January. Maybe, over time, Mare’s former team will supplant the Bears as her team.

“No,” Patrick says with passion.

Somebody get Stenhouse. Patrick is turning mean again.

“My parents moved to Indianapolis and I fear that they are becoming (Indianapolis) Colts’ fans,” says Patrick, who really does sound hurt. “But I just can’t believe that. Is this true? I think my dad feels like he needs to be a Colts’ fan but at heart he’s really a Bears fan.”

So Julius Peppers, another former Panther who left for Chicago, is your guy?

“Peppers is my guy, (Brian) Urlacher’s my guy and whoever our new coach is,” she says.

We ought to be true to the teams with which we grew up. But we don’t have to be true to the sport. Patrick is the most successful woman in open-wheel history. In NASCAR, she started over, and is not close to catching up.

What would constitute a successful 2013 season?

“Steady improvement,” says Patrick. “Steady improvement will be a good sign. Everybody learns at different rates and I don’t doubt that we’re going to get to where we want to be. But how long is that going to take? Is it going to take six months, six years? I don’t know.

“What does it take to get there? It takes awhile. It’s like losing weight. You know, you lose weight and you plateau and then you lose a little bit more. So it’s kind of like that. So I don’t think you can always know when things are going to click or come alive for you.”

The ‘King’ weighs in

Richard Petty, the most successful and beloved racer in NASCAR history, never used a weight-loss analogy when he talked about his hopes.

So, King, what do you think of Patrick?

“This just sort of goes along with the trend of the times,” Petty says. “The time’s right for her to come in.”

The King understands what every racer should. The better she does, the better her sport does.

Praise the Lord.

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