"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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