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Patrick enters NASCAR homestretch with few racing options

| Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, 9:09 p.m.
FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, Danica Patrick walks to her garage prior to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Patrick gets ready for perhaps the final  races of her NASCAR career. With no sponsorship and no ride, she is about out of options.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, Danica Patrick walks to her garage prior to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Patrick gets ready for perhaps the final races of her NASCAR career. With no sponsorship and no ride, she is about out of options.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

DOVER, Del. — Danica Patrick was the darling of Daytona before she put on a helmet. Patrick ushered in the 2013 season accompanied by hype perhaps no other NASCAR rookie ever faced: Her love life, Super Bowl ads and racy photo shoots were trendy themes that generated more enthusiasm than her actual career accomplishments.

She was projected as the new face of the sport — a face that corporate America adored — was flush with sponsor cash and was counted on as a role model for the next generation of little girls and casual fans who couldn't flip through a magazine or turn the dial without seeing “Danica.”

Then she raced and became the first woman to win the pole at NASCAR's top level, her Q-Rating soaring higher than her race speeds and a career rebirth in stock cars seemingly under way. She led three times for a total of five laps, was running third behind Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one lap left and finished eighth. Patrick turned in the best finish by a woman in the Daytona 500.

It might turn out that her career peaked at Daytona.

Her 182-race NASCAR Cup career never has yielded anything close to the Danicamania that engulfed Daytona. She never had a top-five finish for Stewart-Haas Racing. She never won another pole. She never had much success but, along with Earnhardt, was still one of NASCAR's only true mainstream stars. But as results sank, so did interest in funding her ride. Sponsors bailed, cash dried up and at just 35, Patrick could be facing the final seven races of her NASCAR career.

Patrick has, at least publicly, seemed at peace with this possibility and said there has been little interest from other teams in bringing her aboard next season.

“I've had some (discussions) but not a ton,” she said Friday. “I let the business people in my business handle that and have those conversations and figure out what options are out there, and I continue to let them do that.”

Even if Patrick somehow found a last-minute primary sponsor, rides are scarce for 2018. Richard Childress Racing and Furniture Row Racing could field a car for her, and she won't sign with a team that can't offer a competitive ride. While Earnhardt's final season has come with fanfare, gifts, donations and a celebration of his career, Patrick's last ride has been anything but, and if she's going out, it's not by choice.

Of course, Patrick made more of an impact than most drivers with a collection of checkered flags.

“The inspiration that you are told that you bring to people, especially to kids,” she said. “That's a role that you can't buy your way into. You have to earn that. You can't just stumble into that. That's probably the most meaningful.”

Patrick said she has no plans to return to IndyCar, where she won a race and led laps in the Indianapolis 500 before shifting to NASCAR, but declined to totally rule it out.

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