News Column

Danica Patrick's Big Year

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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.

It's nothing new for Patrick, who has compared the polarizing nature of her popularity to that of Tim Tebow. There were snits in IndyCar with drivers who complained that she dominated the spotlight despite results that paled compared with those of other stars, and a fiery (some might say petulant) side often emerges when she feels wronged, which has caused tangles with rivals and her own team.

There have been no such incidents in NASCAR, and the early reception has been welcoming. Prominent Cup driver Kyle Busch, who also owns a Nationwide Series team, says Patrick has talent and deserves the spot.

"People ask, 'Is she given too much attention for not being successful?' I'd admit, 'Yes she has been, but it's great for our sport,'" Busch says.

Earnhardt Jr. says the interest in Patrick stems from "a dynamic edge to her personality. She's assertive and determined. That's exciting, especially coming from a woman. It's very rare in this sport, so it's very intriguing to people. Everyone -- some more than they want to admit -- wants to see her do well and succeed, because they want to see what the results are, not necessarily for her but what does that do for the sport."

In the Q Score ratings, which measure the consumer appeal of athletes, celebrities and brands, Patrick has the highest ranking of all active drivers. In the Davie-Brown Index, which rates a celebrity's ability to influence consumer behavior, she has ranked third among drivers behind four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.

Patrick, whose one IndyCar victory made her the first woman to win a major league oval race, will be a long shot to win in the Cup Series after Daytona. At Daytona, though, there has been a history of unlikely champions, including Trevor Bayne, who won last year in his second career Cup race. And in her first full season in the Nationwide Series, as a member of a premier team, she likely will become the junior circuit's highest-finishing woman ever. That would be a boon to her "Beautiful Revolution" brand created by IMG (a global sports, fashion, marketing and media giant that does work for dozens of high-profile athletes, including Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning).

"It's about being different and unique and doing something that's never been done before, but doing it as a girl and looking good while doing it," Patrick said. "And it being a really beautiful thing that it's happening."

While moving to NASCAR will be a major adjustment for Patrick, it won't change her life completely. Unlike most NASCAR drivers, she isn't buying a jet or moving to North Carolina, where her teams are based north of Charlotte. She and Hospenthal will commute from Arizona every weekend, sometimes flying first class but other times taking a chance on an expensive or lengthy flight that their US Airways status will earn them a free upgrade -- or that it won't.

"I know it hits on my street cred if someone sees me in coach," Patrick says, "but I'm just practical like that with money. I just see no point in wasting it. Paul is very smart and has had his own business a very long time, and I've learned from him how to take care of things. We're always trying to think about, 'If (racing) ended today, could we live this lifestyle and not have to work anymore?'"

Stewart, who also lives much of the time outside of Charlotte, knows the value of being able to get away from NASCAR's grind.

"All the attention she got with the IndyCar side, you have to find a way to balance it out with something that gets your mind off it," says Stewart, who spent five days at home during an offseason filled with sponsor appearances, commercials and TV cameos. "I would say she's already figured out what to do to cope with everything."

Patrick's Twitter feed isn't racing-oriented, but the breezy stream of consciousness of an admitted pop-culture junkie. On a shelf in her motor home sits Star magazine ("Twins? Really?" Patrick giggled, picking up a recent issue with Jennifer Aniston on the cover), Allure, Women's Fitness and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition.

"When you become a popular person, that seems to be what people want to know anyway," Patrick says. "I talk or tweet about things based on what I would want to see or want to read about it. If I talk about it enough, it creates authenticity and people know it's real and I'm into it, and then it can become something that I do when I'm done racing."

Patrick has designs on a clothing line after racing (she has turned down two offers) and has launched a perfume line.

Her current and future endeavors are more pristine than the risqu ad campaigns of Go Daddy, which uses her as the strait-laced, clean-cut foil to scantily clad women.

"Even though Go Daddy tends to push the boundaries a little in their marketing, I never got the sense that she crossed the line or puts NASCAR or herself in a bad light," says Jimmy Bruns, a vice president of business development for GMR Marketing, which represents many NASCAR sponsors. "She's done a very good job of pushing her career in this direction. I'd give her an A on everything she's done."

Some of Patrick's brand is an extension of her plainspoken and self-deprecating side. She beamed last week when describing how she learned on a recent shop visit that many scenes in the NASCAR-themed movie Days of Thunder contained a kernel of truth. ("Ice cream on pit lane was real! Crashing the rental cars was real!"). After giving a nondescript answer about her relationship with Stewart during a group interview last week, she playfully mocked herself by mimicking a scene from Lost In Translation.

One of Patrick's IMG representatives, Mark Dyer, a former NASCAR executive who works primarily in IMG's colleges division as a senior vice president, says Patrick often insists on cooking her own breakfast when she stays at his family's home on her frequent visits to Charlotte.

"One of the biggest things people would be surprised to know about her is she is very low maintenance," Dyer says. "She doesn't even let you carry her bag if you pick her up at the airport. She's very self-sufficient.

"She's basically a good old Midwestern girl from northern Illinois, and that's one of the reasons she connects so well in NASCAR."

'We have a lot of fun'

Patrick isn't above public flashes of anger, though. She stomped down pit road a few times to confront drivers after skirmishes in IndyCar, where contact is frowned upon.

In two seasons of part-time racing in Nationwide, Patrick has expressed love for the fender- banging that's prevalent in stock car racing ("What's surprised me is how much I truly enjoy driving these cars"), but in Cup, she will be racing against a higher caliber of veterans who might have less patience for mistakes and have been known to rough up rookies in a form of high-speed hazing.

She will have the wisdom and security of a sibling-type relationship with Stewart, who likes trading pranks and quips with his newest driver. The three-time champion has a similarly combustible personality on track and has become a mentor to Patrick. "As a boss vs. a friend, there's no line there with Tony," she said. "We have a lot of fun."

In her Gatorade Duel debut Thursday, the first of two 60-lap races that set the starting grid for the Daytona 500, she was hit by another car and crashed on the final lap after running in the top10. Her car smacked the inside wall (actually an energy-absorbing barrier) hard, relegating her to the back of the pack for Sunday's green flag in a backup Chevrolet.

Goals are tempered in Cup, but she wants to win in Nationwide. Stewart and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn't win in their first Nationwide seasons, and several IndyCar drivers making the transition to stock cars have struggled mightily.

"I don't think she's in a must-win situation at this point," Bruns said. "The fans and the industry still understand she's learning because it's such a hard thing to do."

ESPN analyst Ray Evernham said, "Sometimes the expectations of what Danica needs to accomplish are not fair to her. But I think the girl can drive a race car, and she really is pretty tough when it comes to handling a lot of the media and fan pressure. I think she's as prepared as any other rookie."

So does Patrick, who thinks she could become the first Cup driver to win her debut because of Daytona's finicky style of racing. "There is no bad driver that wins the Daytona500, but things have to fall your way," she said. "There is a little more luck, and you can't account for that."

That's on the track. Off the track? Patrick thinks she has it covered.

"There's nerves," she said of her debut. "There are a lot of things that are unknown. But overall I'm feeling as comfortable as I could imagine. I'm ready."

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