All eyes on Danica Patrick at Daytona 500

Fri Feb 22, 2013 2:37pm EST
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By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - When Danica Patrick made her Daytona 500 debut last year there were some who wondered if the media circus that surrounded her at NASCAR's top event was a tad excessive.

She was only the third woman to compete in what is known as "The Great American Race" but some voices in the media wondered if she merited more attention than more established drivers such as five-time Sprint Cup winner Jimmie Johnson.

So when Patrick's car was damaged as she spun off the track on the second lap when she was caught up in a five-car crash, the skeptics could afford themselves a little smugness.

But on Sunday, Patrick will start the Daytona 500 from pole position and this time no one will doubt she deserves all the attention she is receiving or her credentials to compete with the very best.

Patrick, who ran a partial Sprint Cup program last year, showed she was ready to race full-time in American stock car racing by qualifying with a top speed of 196.434 mph around Daytona International Speedway last Sunday.

Her top speed was the fastest qualifying effort at Daytona since 1990 and inevitably raised talk about her becoming the first woman to win the coveted prize.

It is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see a woman take on the men in a high-profile sport as so many other events keep men and women apart, even those with no physical contact and which come purely down to speed.

Last year, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn tried in vain to get a chance to race in the men's downhill at Lake Louise in Canada, but NASCAR, always keen to broaden its appeal from their southern, white, male roots, have no gender barrier and have relished having Patrick in the sport.   Continued...

Danica Patrick adjusts her gear before leaving her garage in her number 10 Chevrolet during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida February 22, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Blanco