On the Tuesday before heading east to prepare for the most-hyped race of her life, Danica Patrick popped the cork on a mini-celebration with husband Paul Hospenthal.
Patrick entered the couple's enormous wine cellar in their Scottsdale, Ariz., home and picked a 2004 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from their favorite part of Napa Valley, Calif.
"We'd never had it because they were like, 'Don't drink it for 10 years,' but I figured we'd waited long enough," Patrick says. "Paul said, 'It's Valentine's Day. We're going into a big year, and it's going to be great. We're headed to the Daytona 500. Honey, go pull something good.'"
It might have seemed presumptuous to be toasting before she had turned an official lap in NASCAR's premier series, given that Patrick has said her success would be determined by winning. But in some ways, much of the hard work already had been done well in advance of Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
The third woman to start NASCAR's biggest race will be the first to make her Sprint Cup debut with so much experience weathering the stress of intense scrutiny. The first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, as a rookie in 2005, she has handled years of questions about her gender-defying rise through the motor sports world, her transcendent impact despite only one Indy-Car race victory and, of course, her lightning-rod sex appeal.
"No driver has been so marketed, prepared and coiffed for a season of racing in the history of the sport," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a racing consultant who has spent nearly a half-century in the industry and was the longtime president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Being under contract to the second-tier Nationwide Series team of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, and the Cup Series team of defending champion Tony Stewart will only heighten the visibility of a driver whose star power has led to Barbie doll endorsements, music videos and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appearances.
According to SourceEcreative, Patrick, 29, has appeared in a celebrity-record 10 Super Bowl ads. All were by her primary racing sponsor, Go Daddy, and the Internet domain registrar set its Sunday sales record after running two of her spots during the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
But this Sunday's TV audience likely will be the largest that's seen her race, and her 43 scheduled events this season (10 in the Cup Series, 33 in the Nationwide) will draw double or triple the audiences that watched her compete in Izod IndyCar Series races other than the still-popular Indianapolis 500.
Ed Kiernan, president of the Engine Shop sports and marketing agency, says if Patrick "can contend in Daytona or possibly win, it's, bar none, the story of the year for NASCAR." He says such success also might help re-energize sponsorships from consumer-oriented companies that left the sport or decreased their multimillion-dollar investments during the economic downturn.
"It's exactly what the sport needs right now," Kiernan says. "If she can perform on the track, it'll propel her into another stratosphere. You'll see her popping up in every end cap and aisle display at major retailers all around the country."
How she got here
Patrick's Cup debut comes after a complicated transaction that guaranteed her a spot in Sunday's race. The deal, which essentially gave her another team's points from last season and allowed her to enter based on that, was similar to other deals cut this year and in past seasons. But Patrick's arrangement drew outsized attention, and many fans howled that it was unfair.
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