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NASCAR spotlight shines bright on Danica Patrick

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 3:30 p.m. MST

"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."

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