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  • Joe Burbank / Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

    Joe Burbank Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel Danica Patrick has become the face of NASCAR after owning the spotlight in IndyCar. From her racing to her love life, she has dominated the buildup to Daytona.

  • Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press

    Phelan M. Ebenhack Associated Press Danica Patrick inspects her car while crew members make adjustments during practice recently.

Everyone at Daytona is taking a back seat to Patrick, who adds to her prominence with the pole

Published: Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 4, 2013 - 5:55 am

On the first day that drivers arrived at Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks, the Daytona 500 and the celebrated start of NASCAR's 2013 Sprint Cup season, the story making headlines was Danica Patrick's romantic relationship with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

On the second day, the story of the first practice session was Patrick, who topped the speed charts.

On the third day, after Kevin Harvick won the exhibition race Saturday night in an event that did not even include Patrick, Harvick opened his post-race news conference by joking, "I think the biggest thing is, how are we going to get Danica and Ricky on the front page tomorrow?"

And on the fourth day, Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500.

You thought Patrick, known for her racy photographs and Super Bowl commercials as well as for her racing, would be a sideshow in NASCAR?

Right now, she is the show.

"She comes into this with a racing background, with a tremendous amount of exposure, momentum, just popularity that we've never seen before, especially from a female driver," said Jeff Gordon, who qualified second and will start alongside Patrick on the front row in Sunday's race.

"For her to then follow that up or start the season off with a pole, it's huge. … Surprised you're even talking to me right now, right? I'm glad I didn't win the pole; we would have messed that story all up.

"I've always been a big believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us," Gordon added. "So this is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that, as well. I'm proud to be on the front row this year, side by side with Danica."

There you have it. Even Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and three-time winner of the Daytona 500, has relegated himself to a supporting role in this drama. As has the rest of the field as Patrick prepares for her first season as a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup series.

None of this seems to surprise or rattle Patrick, who owned the spotlight for years in the IndyCar Series. Little seems to have changed in NASCAR. Her relationship with Stenhouse, an up-and-coming driver who also will be a rookie in the Sprint Cup this season, has only intensified the interest in everything she does on and off the race track.

But asked if it was good to see the attention shift back to her racing, at least for the moment, Patrick said: "I definitely think it's good for the team, and it's good for Go Daddy. It's good for NASCAR. It's good for the race itself. When they mention who is on the pole, they're going to mention when the race is. That's good for the whole sport.

"I don't mind answering questions about the other stuff," she added. "But I get that it's not about racing. It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's going on, on the track. That is a really good sign, and I like that."

Either way, it's all good for NASCAR. Patrick made the rounds of many of the major television talk shows Monday morning, giving the sport some much needed publicity. NASCAR has suffered a drop in attendance and television ratings in recent years. The marketing game plan is to focus on drivers, and nobody does a better job of self-marketing than the 30-year-old Patrick.

"Driver star power is something we're going to bang on from a marketing perspective in '13 and in '14, '15, '16," said Steve Phelps, NASCAR's senior vice president and chief marketing officer. "It will all be about the drivers.

"With respect to Danica, she's got a great brand already," he added. "She had that the day she started driving a NASCAR car."

On the track, off the track, the 24 Hours of Danica continues for Patrick.

She finished 17th of 23 cars in the first of Thursday's twin qualifying races at Daytona. She kept the pole position for Sunday's race by keeping the car in which she qualified safe.

She'll next race in Saturday's Nationwide Series.

Still, Patrick has much to learn about racing in the Cup series, although she already has convinced some of her veteran NASCAR peers. She raced 10 times in the Sprint Cup in 2012, technically leaving her a rookie as she takes on a full load of 36 races this season.

"I think she's done a lot better job than I ever thought," veteran driver Denny Hamlin said as he recalled Patrick's initial Cup efforts in 2012 and, in particular, a race in Tennessee last summer. "Bristol, I won that race, and I don't think I saw her much at all, and I thought I'd lap her five, six, seven, eight times."

But he didn't, although ultimately she crashed and finished way behind.

"I think it'll be a while before she gets to the top 10," he added. "But I think there'll be plenty of cars that she'll outrun just off of speed."

The reason for that assessment is Patrick drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, which gets its equipment and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, perhaps the top team in the sport. As a result, her cars will be faster than some others just about every time she gets on the track.

Patrick says the new race car being introduced this season for all the teams, the Gen 6, could help her as well. A taller spoiler in the back of the car at most races means more downforce, allowing the car to grip the track better.

"They do drive maybe a little bit tighter, so that's kind of nice for me," she said last week. "I mean, I'm used to having so much grip coming from IndyCar that I felt like the tracks … I had more grip and was able to carry more load through the corner."

No one can predict where Patrick will finish in her first full season in the Cup series, although she is unlikely to challenge for a place in the 12-car playoff field. But in the end, Patrick's steady presence initially will be more important to NASCAR than her actual results. Outright success would be the bonus.

"Listen, she is a marketing phenomenon," Phelps said. "I think putting her on the biggest stage that we have, the Sprint Cup, and have her run a full season, will only help her."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Viv Bernstein

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