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Daytona spotlight hovers over Danica

By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | Anybody notice that the Daytona 500 is Sunday? Or see Jimmie Johnson, who is beginning his quest for a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship? Or realize that there was Daytona 500 qualifying on Thursday?

Sorry, there’s only one story dominating Speedweeks. It’s Danica Patrick, who will make her NASCAR debut on Saturday in the Nationwide Series.

“My mission is not to be the big story,” said Patrick, who will compete in 13 Nationwide events in addition to her regular job driving in the IndyCar Series.

So far she’s failed in that mission. Clusters of cameras scurry to keep up with Patrick as she walks briskly from her hauler to the garage to her car to her many personal appearances. Fans crowd around the garage and hold up pictures and programs in futile efforts to score an autograph.

“She’s got to learn about NASCAR fans,” said Michelle Logue of Bradenton, Fla. “She’s got to be more willing to come to the fence and sign.”

And when Patrick, the first female to lead an Indy 500 and whose third-place finish in 2009 was the highest ever by a woman, walked into a packed interview room of about 200 journalists this afternoon, she did a double-take.

“There’s a lot more of you in here now,” said Patrick, who had made previous stops in the media room before and after a sixth-place finish in an ARCA race last weekend prompted her decision to tackle the Nationwide race at Daytona, a week before her planned debut next week at California.

All that has done is ratchet the attention of the Nationwide race at the expense of the better-known Sprint Cup drivers (many of whom will race on Saturday, too) and even overshadow Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“I’m lucky,” said Patrick, 27. “But I can’t control how much is out there and what people say, how much they say. I don’t by any means want to take away from the amazing drivers that are out there and doing well and also having their first race in Nationwide or their first race in Cup … or changing teams.

“But on the other hand, if I can do anything to help the series, the other drivers, perhaps drag in some sponsors, I’m happy to do it. And I get benefit from that, too. But, I by no means, am trying to take anything away from anybody else, including the Daytona 500.”

Johnson, who ordinarily would be the centerpiece of the start of the season, harbors no resentment toward Patrick.

“Attention for our sport is a great thing,” Johnson said. “It doesn't matter who the driver is, champion or not, newcomer. Our sport has weathered the storm of the economy, but we've all seen cutbacks in every category. We need as many eyes on this sport as possible. And I'm excited that she is considering our sport and going to give it a shot for a few races to see where she's at, see if she enjoys it, get her feet wet. I think it's great. I have no issues with it. “It’s a long season. Everybody deserves their time in the sun, their time in the spotlight. At the end of the last year, that spotlight was bright and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Patrick’s presence increased ticket sales for Saturday’s Nationwide race, said Daytona International Speedway president Robin Braig, and if she proves to be competitive, the other 12 tracks will get much-needed boosts. Also, ESPN expects a rise in ratings for its coverage of the series.

“It’s our strong belief that there will be people that turn on Saturday’s Nationwide telecast that perhaps don’t watch a lot of Nationwide races or NASCAR at all, because of the interest in her,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice-president/motorsports. “If they like what they see, and we provide them what they’re interested in, they may come back next week, and next week, and watch Fox’ Daytona 500 coverage, and read more stories.

“The more people that watch, the more successful the entire sport is. It’s a balance thing but we also view it as an opportunity.”

In a strange way, the IndyCar series -- in which Patrick has competed since 2005, is benefiting from this Danica NASCAR media.

“Their name has been said, time and time again in referring to me, what I’ve done, where I’ve come from,” said Patrick, who will compete in the IndyCar race at Kansas Speedway on May 1. “Shoot, I refer to IndyCar all the time. It’s the only thing I have to refer to. I say it all the time. that’s all I have to go off of. I’m sure it’s being mentioned more than if an IndyCar driver wasn’t out there.

“I know this is a bigger stage. I feel like I’ve really built up a lot patience and tolerance and confidence along the way in IndyCar to be ready for everything, including this.”

Patrick ranked fifth in practice time today, averaging 183.072 mph, an improvement over Wednesday when she averaged 182.990, which was 26th. But she realizes the Nationwide race, which is 100 miles longer than the ARCA race will be difficult, especially considering the field will include several Cup regulars, including former champions Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and her boss Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Interestingly, Patrick didn’t recognize some of her competitors on the track when they’re in Nationwide cars.

“I don’t want to sound silly or like I don’t know what’s going on out there,” she said, “because I’m very aware what car they drive in Cup, but they have different paint schemes for this race, so whjen I re-watched the practice from (Wednesday), I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I went by Carl Edwards, all right!’ Those are victory moments.

“But I don’t really want to know exactly who they are all the time because I don’t want to have this preconceived idea that, ‘Whoa, it’s a Cup guy, be careful.’ I want to race them like I would race them. I’m a fair driver. I want to earn their respect.”

Some of the fans aren’t so sure how Patrick will fare.

“Once they start bumping her, she’s going to be out,” said Nancy King of Micco, Fla. “I’m hope not, but I don’t think the boys are going to play very well with her. It’s not like those little wing (Indy cars or ARCA cars.”

To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send e-mail to rcovitz@kcstar.com

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