For years now, Danica Patrick has been something of a novelty - the female auto racer, who also appears in the scandalous advertisements from GoDaddy.
This year however, she's putting everything on the line to show that she can race with the best in the world. After years of racing Indy Cars and last year on the NASCAR Nationwide series, Patrick will make her NASCAR Spring Cup Series debut in this Sunday's Daytona 500.
Will having a media star like Patrick help the overall economic health of NASCAR, which has seen a bit of a decline in public interest the last couples of years? According to ESPN vice president, motorsports, Rich Feinberg it does. In a conference call this week, Feinberg was asked that question. "I think the answer has to be yes. It was two years ago we were sitting here and talking about Danica. One of the questions that I was asked was are you concerned about focusing too much on her. Yet somebody pointed out that 90% of the questions that came from you all in this room are about her. So our coverage is in balance with what we believe the audience interest is."
When talking about what positives Patrick can bring to the sport, Feinberg added, "She is somebody that clearly has brought new fans to the sport. She represents appeal to a younger demographic which is an important area for us to grow our viewership base, and she's a darn good race car driver."
ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett was on that same call, and he agreed that people will be watching Patrick. "I think she's a polarizing figure, and she's embraced the idea that she is the face of the Nationwide Series and somewhat the Sprint Cup Series now. A lot of eyes are on her." Jarrett added that he has had to come around a little bit in his thinking on Patrick and her potential as a driver. "I'll be quite honest, I was very skeptical whenever she came over, could she handle these cars, get in, and mix it up? I'm a fan. I think she can do it. 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." He added that he feels Patrick is going to be "good for the sport."
Over on FOX (which will broadcast the Daytona 500 on Sunday, beginning at noon) analyst Jeff Hammond talked about what he expects from Danica Patrick this season: "The main thing is for her to get her laps in. Don't get caught up trying to push too hard in the races that she gets into. From what we've seen from her in the past, she's very savvy behind the wheel. She knows what those limits are and if she's able to get into those races and finish them; she could pull down a couple of top-15's or even a top-10. She's someone that at certain racetracks you can't overlook." Hammond too, had to adjust his thinking on Patrick's abilities "She has a ton of talent. I was very skeptical in the beginning but I've been impressed with her work ethic and the way she approaches the car. You wouldn't see Tony Stewart or even Dale Jr. having her drive with them unless they felt the same way."
Fellow FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip talked about what Patrick needs to do most to relieve some of the pressure and to be successful in NASCAR: "She'll be ok on the track with the people she's surrounded by. One thing that she needs is to be accepted by the fans. People have said that she doesn't deserve to do this. If she can overcome a lot of that that will be a big accomplishment. She'll do the on-track stuff better than most people expect. If she does, that'll put some of those skeptics to rest. That would be a huge success."
Having Patrick on the circuit is likely to bring back at least some of the casual fans who may have lapsed a bit in their NASCAR following the last several years. Whether they keep coming back may depend on how successful Patrick can be at proving that she is much more than just a sideshow.