Time for Danica Patrick to ante up

Many women would have done the Go Daddy commercials.

Few would have looked as fit as Danica Patrick, especially when standing next to former "The Biggest Loser" trainer Jillian Michaels. But the opportunity -- the endorsement money, the national exposure, the car sponsorship -- would have lured more women than most would care to admit.

The argument that a sexy female athlete shouldn't capitalize on her looks feels dated. Patrick's body is her commodity, just as Tom Brady's body is his. Posing in a bikini doesn't compromise her ability to excel behind the wheel.

But what if she doesn't excel? Well, then she's compromising more than just herself. Fair or not, she's compromising female athletes as a group.

Public perception of women often operates on a pulley system. When one part rises, another must fall. When Patrick unzipped her top while walking into the staged wind on that Go Daddy set, she drew attention away from her driving. Only she can recalibrate the pulley of public perception. Only she can make people talk less about her swimsuit poses and more about her driving.

Few female athletes have found this balance between on-field performance and off-field allure, but the ones who have -- including Serena Williams, Mia Hamm and Hope Solo -- catapulted into stardom. The rest tend to slide too far one way or the other. Abby Wambach is all game, Anna Kournikova all glitz. Never mind that Kournikova reached No. 1 as a doubles player; her career was defined by her failure to win a WTA singles title, even though she received Grand Slam-like endorsement money.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Danica Patrick posted the eighth-fastest lap during single-car morning runs at Daytona on Thursday.

Right now, Patrick is leaning dangerously close to glitz over game, which is unfortunate because behind the risqué image is a really good race car driver. But she raised the stakes when she made it about something other than just her driving. As the saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected. Each time a woman receives star-like money for her looks and then fails to deliver star-like results with her skills, it reaffirms the perception that sex sells women's sports, talented athletes be damned.

It's time for Patrick to ante up. It's time for her to live up to the hype she created.

This year's NASCAR Nationwide Series will be her first full season on the circuit, and she needs to win races -- as in, more than one. She became the first woman to win an IndyCar Series event when she took the checkered flag at the Indy Japan 300 in 2008. She finished third at the Indianapolis 500 the following year. Since then, Patrick has been mostly in transition, splitting her time between IndyCar and NASCAR, giving her a built-in excuse for delivering up-and-down results.

There are people in the sport who say she has been given things (her ride, fan exposure) that she didn't deserve because she's a woman. There are people who say she has been given even more than that (millions in endorsements) because she's a good-looking woman. This season, it's time to put all those excuses in the rear-view mirror. At age 29, Patrick is reaching her peak as a driver. If she starts winning races, people will talk about how she's winning, not what she's wearing. She will have recalibrated the pulley system.

If she doesn't win and drives off into the sunset, pockets filled with sponsor money, it will leave a lot of folks feeling the way you do when you eat a bag of Cheetos: regretful.

Yes, Patrick is fun to watch, but if she doesn't make more of a dent in NASCAR, what will be her legacy? A few sexy commercials and no lasting success. A result such as that compromises all female athletes, because they are still often judged as one. They are all fighting for space in a crowded sports world. (Men don't have this problem; they snag the big-time endorsement deals only after they've dominated on the field.)

Women making money by flaunting their bodies is not a novel concept. The novelty would be if Patrick could do both -- keep that Go Daddy endorsement and prove her NASCAR detractors wrong.

Look good. And win.

Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.

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