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Patrick races for love, respect

AP
n this Nov. 3, 2012, file photo, drivers Danica Patrick, left, talks with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., as they wait on pit road during qualifying for a NASCAR Nationwide series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Patrick slid into her chair at NASCAR media day Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 and promptly informed her audience she'd only answer racing-related questions. Then she proceeded to talk candidly about her relationship with Stenhouse Jr. AP file photo

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Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 9:09 p.m.
 

It would have been fitting had NASCAR passed out peanuts and cotton candy during Danica Patrick's news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. It was a shameful circus nearly devoid of substance.

Patrick, the first woman to have a full-time Sprint Cup ride, spent much of her time discussing her love life instead of her foray into a male-dominated sport.

She was prepared to talk about anything — mostly her relationship with rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — except the season-opening Daytona 500 next Sunday.

“Poor Ricky has been asked a lot of questions,” she said. “But I haven't gotten too many. But I'm happy to answer them. I'm happy to talk about it. It's fine with me.”

At times, Patrick possesses a conflicting persona. She can be obtuse yet edgy.

Somehow, though, she deserved better than to be interrogated about her relationship with Stenhouse.

She worked hard at becoming a respected IndyCar Series driver before spending the past two years learning the nuances of stock-car racing the hard way on the ARCA and Nationwide Series.

Maybe sex sells, but Patrick did everything the right way. Tony Stewart didn't offer her a ride because of her good looks. Instead, he figures she will soon drive circles around men with lesser talent.

Patrick isn't going to win the Daytona 500. She might not even place in the top 30, but that won't make her unique. She is, however, uniquely qualified to have the opportunity to continue, if not finish, what Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith started in 1949.

Frankly, I don't care about Patrick's personal life. Neither should anyone else.

It might only matter if Patrick and Stenhouse allow their feelings to get in the way of competing for the checkered flag. Patrick, who posted the fastest time in the second Sprint Cup practice Saturday, won't blink when racing side-by-side with Stenhouse.

“I think racing-wise that's obviously a big question in a lot of people's minds, fans' minds,” she said.

“I had a friend say, ‘I'm excited to see how you guys race against each other when you're out there.' That's someone that isn't even into racing curious to see how that will go.

“We've been racing against each other as long as we've known each other. So, you know, there are times you're out there on the track, you don't even see each other, you're not even next to each other. Every time we have been, it's about respect and neither of us put up a big fight.”

Finally, she blinked when asked one too many questions about her personal life.

“This doesn't feel very racing oriented really,” she said of the news conference. “I don't want to be on this loud speaker, honestly. I asked them if I could not be on it.”

It isn't lost on Patrick that what matters most is how well she performs during qualifying Sunday or how she handles the pressure of competing in the qualifying races on Thursday.

More important, Patrick appears confident and prepared to race. The residual of experience behind all types of wheels is her ability to unburden herself of proving she belongs on the racetrack with the likes of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson or four-time champion Jeff Gordon or her boss, three-time champion Stewart.

“In IndyCar, I was always really nervous. I always felt like there was a lot of pressure, and I felt like every lap was on the edge,” she said. “The racing was getting really dicey at the end. People were just all over the place, and I felt nervous going into that.”

Patrick's confidence might be bolstered by the Generation-6 car perhaps being a perfect fit for her, particularly with the increased grip.

“I'm used to having so much grip coming from IndyCar. I was able to carry more load through the corner, and because of that it felt to me most comfortable,” she said. “I feel like I was able to feel the edge of the car better. I think there's a lot of things about this car that are good for me.”

If Patrick can maintain her grip and poise, she'll have a chance of sipping some champagne with the peanuts and cotton candy.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk on TribLive Radio every Friday at 9 to 10 a.m.

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