Published February 25, 2012
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As her car hurtled out of control toward the inside retaining wall at Daytona International Speedway, Danica Patrick did a split-second survey of her situation.
With no chance of avoiding a head-on collision at nearly 190 mph, Patrick prepared for the impact. She took her hands off her steering wheel and pulled them close to her body. In her mind, she had clenched her arms tight near her shoulder harnesses.
In reality, the in-car camera showed her hands were much higher, almost at her face. And just like that the talk shifted from her otherwise clean run in Thursday's qualifying race to a discussion about the pretty girl who covered her eyes right before a big scary accident.
It didn't matter that it wasn't true.
"In IndyCars, you learn to take your hands off the wheel," Patrick explained Friday. "I was trained when there is no saving it and no hope, you let go. That's what I did.
"No, I wasn't covering my eyes. But, yes, I did close them as I got to the wall. I didn't want my eyes to pop out of my head."
Everything Patrick does this season, her first full year in NASCAR, will be scrutinized. She's one of the most popular athletes on the planet, but her spotty racing resume makes her an easy target for hard-core racing fans who consider her an overhyped driver unworthy of the attention she receives.
She's found often on ESPN, which broadcasts the bulk of Patrick's races. She has dabbled the last two years in the Nationwide Series and will run the full schedule this year for JR Motorsports. She also will make her Sprint Cup Series debut in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, the first of 10 scheduled events this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.
So, it's easy to understand why the traditional auto racing fan is concerned that ESPN might overwhelm fans with its interest in "Danicamania."
"Our coverage is in balance with what we believe the audience interest is," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president of motorsports.
Former NASCAR champion turned ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett understands the conundrum facing Patrick and her move to NASCAR, which openly admits it hopes she drives ratings and attracts new fans. She'll be heavily featured in Saturday's season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona.
"I think she's a polarizing figure," Jarrett said. "I'll be quite honest. I was very skeptical when she came over. Could she handle these cars, get in and mix it up? I think she can. Is she going to go out and set the world on fire? That's going to be difficult to do, because she's up against the best in the world.
"But she's good for the sport, and I think we do a very nice job of balancing that and giving her enough and giving the fans enough but not going over the top either."
The hardest thing to overcome is Patrick's statistics.
In 115 IndyCar starts, she won one race — Japan in 2008. She had seven podium finishes, and two of them came when she began dabbling in NASCAR two seasons ago. Since coming to NASCAR, she has three top-10 finishes in 25 races over two years.
Patrick understands, even accepts, that there are people who find her results unacceptable.
"I know it's somewhat of a product of becoming popular. When you get a lot of attention, the general public expects everything to be at that level," she said. "They expect my results to be at my popularity level. They expect everything to be earned, deserved and on the same level. I get it.
"There's just certain people that are intriguing. I still don't know why I'm intriguing to people, because there have been other girls that have been race car drivers. While I like to think that I have done a good job at times with my driving and with results, people just want to know about me and are curious. It grows, and it snowballs. Do I wish I could have more wins? Yeah, of course I do."
There always have been mixed feelings about Patrick in IndyCar, where for seven seasons she overshadowed every other driver and was the main storyline even when the focus should have been on others. But her former competitors have always supported her, and few ever criticized her talent.
"She's a good driver, and she's not exceptional," Helio Castroneves said. "But you've got to admit, she's a female, and she broke a barrier that a lot of females before couldn't do. It is a men's sport. People are used to that, and when she succeeded the way she did, you're going to get attention. I always respect her as a driver, and I knew when she had a good car she'd really go for it.
"And when she didn't have a good car, she really knows how to respect the limits."
At the same time, there's a bit of a relief that she's moved on.
"I think she was great for this series, but man, this series has to stand on its own," Will Power said. "I think it will be good for the series to run free by itself with us."
"Did she add any fans to the sport? No, probably not," added Graham Rahal. "And where it hurt us, is we were never able to develop a personality outside of her, because there was never an opportunity."
In NASCAR, the competitors recognize that Patrick is the center of the spotlight. At a Nationwide Series event, she teamed with four other series regulars in a game of "Family Feud" vs. the media. The team was captained by reigning Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who picked the official team of "Danica and the Other Guys."
No one seems to be bothered by the attention she receives, and drivers have been kind in their assessment of her skills. Of course, measuring success in NASCAR is far different from the podium-driven open-wheel mentality.
A driver can make a very nice living stringing together top-10s, even top-20s, and Stenhouse was crowned champion last year with two victories and 26 top-10 finishes. In the Cup Series, Carl Edwards lost the title on a tiebreaker, and his final statistics showed one win and 26 top-10 finishes.
So if Patrick can conserve her equipment and take what she can get on the track, she could put together a nice Nationwide season.
"I've always had a hard time trying to be happy about finishing 30th and learning from that experience — that's the thing she's good at," said three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr., who will race Patrick this season for the Nationwide title.
"She's a good finisher. She's very good at taking care of the car and making sure she gets the most out of her time at the track. And she has less pressure. She's a tremendous marketing machine, so she wants to be successful because she has to live with herself. But the success she has on the track isn't necessarily going to be what determines whether or not she has a job."
Her job security, with backing from longtime sponsor GoDaddy.com, is not in jeopardy. But there's pressure on Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion, to field a competitive team for Patrick and ready her for her full-time move to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.
"You can't sit there and smother her," Stewart said. "She still has to figure a lot of this out on her own. I just need to be there, be available, when she does have a question. She's really good at picking up information. She has unbelievable feedback. She's really good at being able to understand what's going on and how to get that feedback to the crew chief. There's so much sensory overload of new things to learn here, that it's so hard to get it all and be able to do something with that.
"She is really, really good at that."
Patrick, who is married, has developed a strong rapport with Stewart — a bit of a brother-sister relationship. They've known each other a long time, and for any chance of long-term success, Patrick believed Stewart was her best bet.
"It's important that I am working with and driving for someone that has respect for me and someone that's willing to help me, because Lord knows I need help," she said. "I want to figure it out as quickly as possible. Tony strikes me as someone that is confident enough in himself that he can volunteer information and want to see me get better."