Posted: Sat February 23, 2013 11:18AM; Updated: Sat February 23, 2013 12:35PM
Cary Estes
Cary Estes>INSIDE NASCAR

Danica Patrick-mania has gripped Daytona

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Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick was besieged by fans following her practice session on Friday.
Chris O'Meara/AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Less than a half hour before Danica Patrick's scheduled appearance Friday in the Daytona International Speedway media center, it was announced that another interview opportunity was about to take place just outside the building. The official making the announcement stressed that this other news conference would conclude well before Patrick's arrival. Basically he was assuring the media members that they could safely leave for a few minutes without any danger of missing Patrick.

The interview session that the media were being coaxed to attend involved none other than Richard Petty, better known in NASCAR circles as The King. These days, however, The King and nearly everybody else in the sport have been overshadowed by The Queen.

It was guaranteed that Patrick's arrival this year as the first female to compete fulltime in NASCAR's premier division would generate a tremendous amount of attention. She already had developed a loyal fan following based on her accomplishments in the Indianapolis 500 (two top-five finishes) as well as her appearances in numerous television commercials for primary sponsor GoDaddy. Then she went out and won the pole position for Sunday's running of the Daytona 500, and the hype machine shifted into overdrive.

Suddenly this has become more than just another auto race. It is a full-blown event, coated with larger social implications. Patrick isn't being compared just to Janet Guthrie, the driver who motored past gender barriers in the 1970s by qualifying for both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. She is evoking memories of Billie Jean King, who won the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match with Bobby Riggs in 1973, striking a highly publicized blow for female equality.

Patrick has become a symbol of success for little girls, a high-speed, high-profile example of all that is possible in life. She doesn't even have to leave the track to see signs of the impact she is having. Several of her racing peers -- including Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- have taken their young daughters to Patrick's motorhome so they could meet her. Edwards' 3-year-old girl, Anne, wore green-colored GoDaddy shoes to the meeting, a get-together that Edwards said was important because to Anne, Patrick is "like some mythical creature that doesn't exist."

Patrick seemed bemused as she recounted that story on Friday. "Something is impacting kids," she said to a packed media center, which included a row of nine television cameras lined along the back wall. "I don't know where it's coming from, but I think it's an interesting thing. It's very flattering, and it's a fortunate situation to find myself in. I enjoy being inspirational to these kids.

"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. 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."

Patrick's crew chief, Tony Gibson, is a NASCAR veteran who has been part of four Daytona 500-winning teams dating to Derrick Cope's upset victory at the track in 1990. He has seen plenty of over-exuberant fans throughout the years, but he said he rarely has witnessed the level of excitement from children that Patrick generates.

"It's pretty amazing to see the little kids, and the girls especially, walk up with their GoDaddy stuff on and their hats," Gibson said. "All they want to do is get a glimpse and get a picture and be part of it. I've gone through probably 50 lugnuts that I have handed out to little girls (as souvenirs). We have gone through a whole bag of lugnuts since we have been here. I think that is really cool for our sport and I think it's going to help our sport grow."

But Patrick's popularity extends far beyond toddlers and teenagers. When she pulled her car into her garage stall following Friday's final practice session, she was met by a swarm of photo-snapping adult fans. There were so many people attempting to take a picture of Patrick that they spilled over into the area in front of the neighboring stall of driver Scott Speed, forcing Speed's crew members to wave the fans out of the way in order to move tires and other equipment. Moments later, when Patrick made the short walk from the garage stall to her hauler, the sight of autograph seekers descending upon her prompted one fan to remark that they were "chasing her like hungry dogs."

Fans have even taken to leaving written messages for Patrick on the glass wall on one side of the stall that allows people without garage passes to watch her team work on the car. One of the messages reads, "Sitting on the pole in front of the big boys. Show them how it's done, girl" Another declares, "You're an amazing woman. Thanks for all you do." And, of course, there is the requisite request from one love-struck fan who simply wrote, "Marry Me."

It still remains to be seen whether all this attention will be justified by Patrick's on-track performance. Sure, winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is impressive, but it's sort of like being the first-round leader at The Masters. What does it really mean if by the end of the race, Patrick is nowhere close to the leaders?

At some point, Patrick is going to have to start consistently running near the front and seriously contending for victories. That probably won't happen Sunday, and it might not occur anytime this season. After all, competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is extremely difficult. Dario Franchitti has won the IndyCar championship four times, but his unsuccessful foray into NASCAR lasted less than one full season.

But there are quite a few heavy hitters within NASCAR, led by car owner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who truly believe Patrick can succeed on this level. Gibson said, "I have 100 percent confidence in her skills and her ability. I definitely have all the confidence in the world we can win."

For the moment, all that matters is that Patrick is giving it a shot. And along the way she is giving hope to a young generation of girls who now have a visible reason to believe that barriers can be broken, and dreams can be fulfilled.

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