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Danica Patrick answers skeptics, critics

Brian Blanco | Reuters - NASCAR Driver Danica Patrick waits to get in her car during the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 race at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida Feb. 23, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Brian Blanco | Reuters</em></div>NASCAR Driver Danica Patrick waits to get in her car during the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 race at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida Feb. 23, 2013.
REUTERS - NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick of the number 10 car, makes her way toward her car to make what would be a Daytona 500 pole position-securing run at qualifying for the race, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Blanco (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT MOTORSPORT)
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick of the number 10 car, makes her way toward her car to make what would be a Daytona 500 pole position-securing run at qualifying for the race, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Blanco (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT MOTORSPORT)

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Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 10:05 p.m.
 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In winning the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500, Danica Patrick did more than prove she belongs. She earned some respect from skeptics, many of whom couldn't envision her racing wheel-to-wheel with NASCAR's heavyweights.

Patrick, though, never doubted that her meteoric rise from ARCA to Sprint Cup in just two years would thrust her into the spotlight.

Now, the former open-wheel driver has to prove she can handle the heat in NASCAR's biggest race of the year. In an event where stage fright has claimed many victims, Patrick faces an incalculable challenge of winning amid great expectations.

“I understand that anything is possible,” said Patrick, a Cup rookie. “It would be nice to know going into the weekend, especially for the crew and for the sponsors, that there is nothing to worry about.

“I'm feeling very confident about my chances, but I'm also cautiously optimistic because I appreciate how tough this is. It's great to be on the pole, but the hardest part is winning.”

Patrick, who will start on Row 1 opposite three-time winner Jeff Gordon, readily accepts the fact that she isn't a prohibitive favorite. It's not that she doesn't have the talent or the machine.

Instead, there remain questions of how steely her nerves will be as she weaves the No.10 Chevrolet through traffic in an uncompromising Turn 2, considering she crashed in a similar situation last year. There are doubts that her limited Cup experience will enable her to recover if she drifts to the back of the 43-car field as she did in the first of the 150-mile duel qualifying races on Thursday.

“She has shown through the Nationwide Series that she is competitive, and she can get in there and mix it up,” said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “I think through a large degree she is great.

“It's really about when you get close to the front and, if you make a move and the wrong move you lose 15 spots. You don't want to make those decisions. You don't want to be back in the eye of the storm.”

Patrick, though, is accustomed to weathering the storm. Unlike the handful of Cup starts in 2012, she didn't panic as her prerace strategy was altered quickly by a slight mechanical failure that starved her car of horsepower needed to get around the 2½-mile oval with the trail pack bump drafting along the wall on the straightwaways.

She could have jeopardized her position in the main event. But to owner Tony Stewart's delight, she finished the 60-lap race with the car largely intact.

“It's not an exciting mission when you've just got to bring it home,” Patrick said. “But, it is for the Daytona 500, so you've got to keep that in mind.

“I learned that the outside (lane) is strong and it carries a lot of good momentum. Then, I learned that you need some friends (to draft).

“If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves,” she added. “The outside got the momentum, but the inside is the shorter distance so they kind of end up being the same if not worse, on the bottom; so it might cause for some anxious drivers come Sunday.”

In the past, Patrick sometimes was overcome with anxiety. So, her patience will be tested, too.

It's a sobering jolt of reality for Patrick as she resisted an instinctive urge to take a few chances in an otherwise meaningless race for a pole sitter.

Admittedly, she was forced to be patient. It was a glaring flaw that haunted her during an IndyCar Series career characterized by the verbal jabs she delivered to crew members and drivers who had the colossal gall to treat her like a driver, a challenger — not a woman.

“It's really ignorant to drive up into the pack and be part of an accident for absolutely no reason,” she said. “You're really not going to learn much there. So, we just finished the race off and made another change, and it kind of ended up being like a test session for us.”

Patrick shouldn't expect any special treatment in the stock-car season opener. Even her teammate, Ryan Newman, acknowledged he's prepared to tangle with her if that is what it takes to have a shot at winning the Great American Race.

“I look at everybody out here as a driver; not necessarily as a man or a woman,” said Newman, who won here in 2008. “Yes, she is a woman. I'm aware of that. But when I'm strapped in that race car, we're all drivers.”

Patrick probably won't be graded on how she finishes Sunday. However, she'll certainly be judged time and time again by the men she will duel with during a long 36-race season.

On Sunday, she will likely discover that every man in the race will be looking to expose and exploit every weakness. They will challenge her resolve and try to lure her into making rookie mistakes.

“I think that everybody exploits inexperience and disadvantages in this race as it progresses,” Gordon said. “It might happen on Lap One. It might happen in Turn 1, and it might happen on Lap 170.

“To me, you must take advantage of any opportunity that you have. If somebody has a lack of experience, then they leave that door open, and somebody is going to exploit it.”

Patrick's biggest challenge might be finding a draft partner. Sometimes, it takes a few years to find a trusting escort who understands the give-and-take of getting around a monstrous racetrack where small mistakes can create tremendous havoc.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com and via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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