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NASCAR spotlight shines bright on Danica Patrick

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 11:26 p.m. MST

Danica Patrick prepares to take her car on the track during practice for Sunday's Daytona 500 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Associated Press

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.

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