Say this about Danica Patrick: The woman knows how to make a powerful first impression. In her stock car debut last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway during an ARCA series race, she spun out, repeatedly banged fenders ("I got bumped everywhere"), rarely gave ground, displayed remarkable car control in her GoDaddy.com Number 7 Chevy and made an impressive, aggressive late charge through the field. She finished sixth out of 43, showing that she has the potential, and the moxie, to succeed in NASCAR. "That was really cool," Patrick said afterward.
Patrick is driving for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick. She'll race in around a dozen Nationwide events, while also pursuing a full-time IndyCar schedule. But even though logistically she won't be able to race at the Cup level until 2012 at the earliest—that's when she can opt out of her contract with IndyCar's Andretti Green Racing—she's already been a boon to NASCAR.
Patrick has been the buzz of Speedweeks. Last Thursday, for instance, 37 print reporters gathered around her during media day at Daytona; only a handful talked to Mark Martin, who finished second in the standings last year. "She's a shot of adrenaline," says Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer, "and our research has found that our core fans like her and want her to succeed." And, perhaps surprisingly, so do her opponents. For Patrick brings a valuable commodity to NASCAR: money. She is the top sponsor draw in motor sports. Her presence has allowed JR to attract two new sponsors and contend for the Nationwide title with driver Kelly Byers. Says Earnhardt, "Danica is nothing but great for our sport."
Many who have made the switch from open-wheel racing to NASCAR—Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed—have struggled. But Patrick should buck that trend. "I had so much fun in the race car today," Patrick said. "I can't wait to do it again."