Just before the start of Speedweeks, Danica Patrick had a visitor to her motorhome in the infield at Daytona International Speedway.

Carl Edwards brought his daughter, Anne, over to meet Patrick. Anne, who will turn 3 on Sunday, was wearing green GoDaddy shoes and wanted to meet her favorite racecar driver—or her “other” favorite driver.

“Carl was saying that it’s good that she sees me in real life and in person because he’s like, ‘to her you are like some mythical creature that doesn’t exist,’ ” Patrick said. “She is a big fan.”

Two days later, Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, becoming the first female driver to earn the top starting spot for a Sprint Cup race. As she celebrated the historic achievement, she had another visitor. Jeff Gordon brought his 5-year-old daughter, Ella, over to meet Patrick. They posed for a picture together, then with the whole family.

A few minutes later, Jimmie and Chandra Johnson brought their 2-year-old daughter, Genevieve, over to meet her.

As Patrick embarks on her first full Sprint Cup season, three of the biggest names in racing have little girls who were dying to meet NASCAR’s fastest rising star. Their daddies may be their heroes, but it is Danica with whom they are infatuated.

“That is very flattering,” Patrick said Friday.

NASCAR’s biggest stars, from Johnson, Gordon and Edwards to Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., will take the green flag for the 55th Daytona 500 on Sunday.

But none of them will race under a brighter spotlight than Patrick, who has taken the sport by storm since winning the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race. Media from around the country and around the world have followed her every move this week, flocking to Daytona Beach to record a piece of history.

It couldn’t have come at a better time for NASCAR, which is looking for any push it can get to re-energize a fan base that has become increasingly lackadaisical in recent years.

Since the death of legend Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR has been starving for a driver who can captivate the masses, appealing to both die-hard fans and attracting new ones.

The sport has longed for a unique, polarizing figure with a colorful personality and the charisma to capture the imagination of old-school fans and attract a new, younger and more diverse audience. Many have tried, but none have developed the expansive, far-reaching appeal NASCAR needs.

That driver may finally have arrived.

Who knew it would be a pretty girl?

The NFL has RG3, the NBA Kobe and LeBron. Golf has Tiger. Now NASCAR has it own star that needs only one name.


Thanks to her supermodel looks and talent behind the wheel, Patrick has been one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers since arriving from IndyCar three years ago. But as she begins her first full Sprint Cup season, she just might be the new face of NASCAR, her popularity spreading to Earnhardt-like proportions.

In the past week, Patrick has appeared on CNN, the NBC Nightly News, CBS This Morning and Good Morning America. NPR has done a piece on her and every major news organization is on the grounds at Daytona to cover her historic Daytona 500 start.

That kind of exposure usually is reserved for the winner of the Daytona 500—not the pole winner.

Though Earnhardt Jr. has been the face of the sport for the past 12 years—and still has the sport’s largest and most loyal fan base—it is Patrick that now is fueling the NASCAR engine. Talk of her possibly unseating Junior as the sport’s most popular driver seemed preposterous a few weeks. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

NASCAR hoped its new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car would re-energize fans this year. It has, to a certain extent.

But that story now pales in comparison to the attention and anticipation of Patrick’s arrival in Sprint Cup.

There already was widespread curiosity about Patrick’s first full Cup season, and then two big things happened.

Shortly after filing for divorce from her husband of seven years (a story that made headlines in London), Patrick announced that she has a new boyfriend—fellow Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The mild-mannered, soft-spoken Stenhouse was best known for winning consecutive Nationwide Series championships and occasionally donning a black cowboy hat.

Now he is known as “Danica’s boyfriend,” or “the other Junior.” Since going public with their relationship, Danica has done more for Stenhouse’s popularity than anything he could do on the track.

Their budding romance has brought NASCAR unconventional exposure, moving it off the sports pages and into tabloid, TMZ territory, giving the sport a bit of a soap-opera feel. And while that might seem a bit unseemly, NASCAR couldn’t ask for better exposure.

Danica’s love life was the talk of the town as Speedweeks began. Then she went out and won the pole for the Daytona 500, putting her—and Ricky—in an even brighter spotlight.

Since winning the pole, Patrick has been the focus every time she has taken the track. Media flock to her hauler after practice, she is ushered into the media center at every opportunity and she gets more TV time than any driver. Media are even interviewing media about her. While she garnered this kind of attention when she made her first Cup start at last year’s Daytona 500, it has been ramped up tenfold entering this season.

While many fans—and drivers—resent all the attention on Danica, it is having a powerful impact on the sport. For every fan that hates her because of all the attention or because she hasn’t proven herself on the track, there are hundreds more who are fascinated with her appeal.

Tony Gibson, Patrick’s crew chief, estimates that he has handed out more than 50 souvenir lugnuts with Patrick’s No. 10 on them as kids flock to her hauler and her team’s garage stall.

“I have handed out more lug nuts to little girls at those little windows in the garage area than I have since I have been (coming) here,” Gibson, a 20-year veteran, said. “It’s pretty amazing to see the little kids, and the girls especially, walk up with their GoDaddy stuff on and their hats.

“All they want to do is get a glimpse and get a picture and be part of it. … I think that is really cool for our sport, and I think it’s going to help our sport grow.”

Patrick was in a gym recently when a crewman from another team walked up and showed her a video of his kids holding up a magazine with Danica on the cover.

“They said my name and he said, 'I have no idea how they know who you are,' ” Patrick said.

Patrick marvels at the attention and attraction she has for kids.

“I have no idea. I don’t get it either,” she said. “I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t know if it’s something that they see on TV that doesn’t seem to be so obvious to a parent or if their kids, once they are in school, if it’s part of some curriculum. I’m not really sure.

“I think it’s an interesting thing, though. It’s very flattering and it’s a fortunate situation to find myself in. I enjoy being inspirational to these kids. I’d love to know why.”

For NASCAR and its sponsors, it doesn’t really matter why.

All that matters is that it has a new star—one with a far-reaching attraction that is re-energizing the sport.

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