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Danica Patrick brushes off Richard Petty's criticism

DAYTONA BEACH — Danica Patrick has grown used to criticism as a female driver in a male-dominated sport.

So if the 31-year-old racer was bothered by NASCAR legend Richard Petty's recent remarks that Patrick could only win if "everybody else stayed home," she didn't show it Thursday when she arrived at Daytona International Speedway.

"People have said things in the past, and they're going to say things in the future," Patrick said. "I still say the same thing, and that's everyone's entitled to their own opinion. People are going to judge what he said, whether they judge it well or not. I'm just not going to."

Petty's shot at Patrick dominated conversation during media day in preparation for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23. Drivers were reluctant to take sides between one of the sport's living legends and one of its most popular personalities.

"You can't call out the King because he's the King," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Petty, 76, a seven-time series champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer.

But Earnhardt said it's not fair to hold Patrick to a higher standard, either. Patrick is only in her second full Sprint Cup season, and it takes years for drivers to adjust from open-wheel racing to stock cars.

"She deals with more criticism than anybody else has ever faced in the sport," said Earnhardt, Patrick's former Nationwide series car owner. "She goes by a different set of rules because of her gender, and that's unfortunate."

If she can prove Petty wrong on the track, it likely will be at Daytona, a superspeedway that reminds her of IndyCar racing and features field-leveling restrictor plates.

Patrick made history in last year's Daytona 500 by winning the pole and becoming the first female driver to lead a Cup race under green. They were the only five laps her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet led all year.

The rest of her season was lackluster. She finished 27th in points, and her only top 10 was an eighth-place finish at Daytona. In 221 career IndyCar, Cup and Nationwide races, Patrick has one win, an IndyCar victory at Japan in 2008.

Those results have led to plenty of criticism about whether Patrick is a marketing machine or a serious racer.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, said Thursday that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of her winning, but he also hasn't "seen any indication" that she could win at a track without restrictor plates.

Patrick, 31, said she didn't mind the questions or the controversy because "we haven't really done anything on the racetrack" and because it gets people talking about the sport.

"It's hard to rattle her," Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick said.

Richard Petty's dig was similar to one his son, Kyle, made last summer. Kyle Petty said Patrick drove fast but couldn't race well, even though her average finishing position (26th) was four spots better than her average starting spot.

"I don't know what their problem is," said Ricky Stenhouse, a Roush Fenway Racing driver and Patrick's boyfriend. "Hey, they have opinions, and they like to talk."

Patrick said Kyle Petty sought her out last year and that they had a long conversation to clear the air. This time, she said she sees no reason to track down the King to do the same.

"The people that matter the most to me are my team, my sponsors and those little 3-year-old kids that run up to you and want a great big hug and say they want to grow up to be like you," Patrick said. "That's the stuff that I really focus on."

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Danica Patrick brushes off Richard Petty's criticism 02/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014 9:39pm]
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