Danica Patrick thrives on the big stage
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick was reclined in the chair of the work nook in her motor coach Sunday, projecting something between relaxed and coiled. Every few moments she pushed at her smartphone on the countertop.
Iconic team owner Richard Childress, who won six Sprint Cup championships with Dale Earnhardt, had predicted days earlier that Patrick would win the pole for the Daytona 500. That would be a very big deal, on many levels, for many people, especially Patrick as she embarked on her first full season at NASCAR's highest level.
"Qualifying is in 36 minutes," she said to the reporter across the table in mock haste. "Go!"
Life and career are a series of "get-it-done moments" for the 30-year-old former IndyCar star. In 36 minutes plus the time it took the first seven qualifiers to make their runs, Patrick would become the first female to win a Sprint Cup pole. Once again, the biggest stage had been the scene of one of her finest moments.
A victory Sunday in the Daytona 500, however unlikely it would be for a rookie, a second-time starter in NASCAR's greatest race, or a driver with just 10 races of Sprint Cup experience, would be unexpected but arguably not surprising.
Patrick thrives on the big stage.
"I have no idea (why), but I would agree with you," she said. "I guess over enough time you can find common denominators with performance and attempts that happen around big events or higher pressure. I'm not sure.
"Some people thrive on it. Some people don't."
Part of Patrick's ability to produce in the limelight is the fact she has been in it so long as a teen kart racer beating the boys, said her agent Mark Dyer. Part, he said, is her ability to categorize and vigorously stake out personal time to keep herself fresh and focused. And part, he said, is the fact she imprinted on two of the most famous venues in American racing: Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
Patrick came to Daytona in December 2009 as an absolute beginner for an ARCA test but enjoyed the experience enough to continue with a progression to a stock car career. She finished sixth in an ARCA race the ensuing Speed Weeks.
She actually bought the race car, a rarity for her. Remarkably, just three years later, Patrick now has pole wins in both the Nationwide and Cup series at Daytona. This year she has avoided the collisions that marred her experience last February.
"She's certainly had some tough moments," Dyer said, "(but) she's just taken to this place."
The fact that Patrick can make a competition of almost anything doesn't hurt. Fellow rookie of the year contestant and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been victimized by her mastery of card games. Patrick entered her first CrossFit competition recently in Davidson, N.C., with two female acquaintances, one the wife of Stenhouse's accountant. They won.
"I guess I've been finding even over the last months, finding little competition things that happen," she said. "Ricky and I will do something competitive and we'll make a bet on it … and it will just bring something out in you when more is on the line.
"So I guess taking that to a whole new level with racing and with your actual job and things like that that is as high pressure as it can be. Maybe there's just something in me that responds to and reacts well to higher-pressure situations."
There was perhaps no more of a high-pressure situation in her career than her first start in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 as an unheralded rookie with Rahal Letterman. Patrick built speed inside the track and buzz outside of it, qualifying and finishing fourth -- both gender records -- and leading 19 laps, becoming the first female to do so. Patrick led the race late, creating a national drama that made her an instant mainstream star, which she has maintained through her transition to NASCAR.
"We were still working and every now and again we would check the computer and go holy s---," Patrick's father, TJ, said of the building momentum of that life-changing May. "Fast this day, fast that day. Rahal was so strong that year, whenever somebody went out and set a fast time, they'd throw her in a car and she would go out and beat it."
Patrick's efforts this week have been a boon for NASCAR as she capitalized on numerous mainstream media opportunities, including "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," "Good Morning America," "Pardon the Interruption," "SportsCenter" Sunday Conversation and the "London Telegraph.''
It's also been good for business. According to sports apparel site Fanatics.com, Patrick has been the top-selling driver on the site since winning the pole, and sales of women's products for her merchandise are up more than 550 percent over January.
The stage is hers again, and crew chief Tony Gibson will not temper expectations. An effusive proponent of Patrick's abilities since taking over in her final two Cup races last season, Gibson has personally witnessed how unlikely scenarios play out at Daytona. He worked on the car Derrike Cope used to win the 1990 Daytona 500.
The odd nature of restrictor plate racing and its combination of fluid dynamics and a palace intrigue has made for unexpected winners. Seventeen drivers have won their first Cup race at Daytona, seven in the Daytona 500. For some, it was their only Cup win.
"She's got the talent and she's got the ability and she's already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I've seen, on the speedway stuff she definitely gets the respect and people know she's fast," he said.
"She can draft. She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence that she can win the Daytona 500. I can remember Derrike Cope, and nobody gave him a chance either, but I saw him in Victory Lane."