By Jim • 

Sports fan: NASCAR's Danica Patrick competes in man's world

While the 31-year-old Patrick has only won one race in her professional driving career — the 2008 Indy Car Series event in Japan — she captured the pole at the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2013, only to make a small mistake late in the race to fall back from third to eighth at the checkered flag. She was also the Indy Racing Series Rookie-of-the-Year in 2005 and was honored with the same award for the entire series that year. So she's had some success in both series, but detractors like Robby Gordon and Richard and Kyle Petty still doubt her ability.

Gordon, when Patrick was preparing for the Indy 500 one year, said she had a distinct advantage in the cockpit of an Indy Car because of her low body weight (Danica carries 99 pounds on her 5-foot-2 frame), not her driving skills, while Kyle Petty asserted that she was only "a marketing machine," not a race car driver.

Some felt Kyle's remarks sounded like sour grapes since he was in truth at best a mediocre driver for much of his career, but when father Richard, aka the "King", said "she can go fast, but she can't race," his comments drew a little more attention. However, in both cases, her colleagues came to her defense, supporting her efforts on the big stage in NASCAR.

Of course, Patrick is a "marketing machine," supporting the sponsor of her No. 10 Chevrolet with a series of popular (and sometimes "edgy") commercials. She has also done commercials and ads for a number of other entities, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (and in the swimsuit issue), has been a guest on a number of late night shows and even acted in several series. She also appeared in Miranda Lambert's country music video of "Fastest Girl in Town."

So, indeed, she is a "marketing machine," but many consider her to also be an integral segment of the NASCAR racing community. However, many critics point out that she has not had a "break-out season" since 2005 when she finished 12th in Indy Car Series points and captured her two Rookie of the Year awards.

In her first two races this season, Patrick has been involved in a number of wrecks, most not her fault, but when drivers qualify back in the pack, trouble often lies ahead as competitors who start at the tail-end of the field are impatient to fight their way to the front.

That's just the nature of racing, which often brings out the best in drivers but sometimes the worst. Robby Gordon, who criticized Patrick, often crashed in Indy Car or NASCAR races but had more success in off-road racing where the competition was strung out.

Some of Patrick's detractors base their attitudes on the fact she's a female competing in a once men-only racing series — if you watched the pre-race ceremony for the Daytona 500 in 2013, you heard actor James Franco say, "Drivers and Danica, start your engines," implying that Patrick is not a driver. However, during the opening ceremonies at the March 3 race at Phoenix International Raceway that same year, actor Brian Baumgartner got it right with "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines.”

So, yes, maybe there is either some bias in NASCAR concerning female drivers... or, Franco simply made an error in a moment of excitement. And, perhaps Gordon and the Petty's are old-time rednecks who believe a woman's place is still in the kitchen, not on the race track.

In any event, for the remainder of the long Sprint Cup campaign, dignitaries commanding drivers to start their engines will get it right and Patrick will continue to strive for a breakout race — or season.

While many are in Patrick's camp because she is one of the NASCAR community and sometimes competitive, her detractors often forget that Danica is one of the top representatives of the Sprint Cup Series: she's well-spoken — a major voice for the series — and very photogenic, whether in a driver's suit or in a bikini. So the big boys of NASCAR, along with all the fans, should be happy to have Patrick in their midst, competing and drawing more fans to the sport, especially women and the younger male audience. In fact, in her short tenure in NASCAR, she, like former teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has become an icon.

And that isn't easy for the only female in the series.

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