Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What Danica, NASCAR mean to each other

There are certain days in sports that will be remembered forever.

The Miracle on Ice. Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. The Shot Heard 'Round the World.

Today could turn out to be one of those special days. We might see the greatest moment in the history of women in sports. All that stands in the way is 500 miles — the length of today's Daytona 500.

Danica Patrick, 30, isn't the favorite, though she will start on the pole position. That achievement alone has created more buzz than the Super Bowl of auto racing has seen in years. But a victory would change everything — from NASCAR, to women in sports, to sports in general.

Even if she doesn't win, Patrick already is having a huge influence on NASCAR as she begins her rookie Sprint Cup season. Sure, Patrick needs NASCAR, but, even more so, NASCAR needs Patrick. Here's a look at the key questions about this marriage that could lift NASCAR and Patrick to new heights.

For starters, can she win today?

Of course. She's on the pole, meaning she had the fastest lap of any driver in last week's qualifying — actually, the fastest qualifying lap (196.434 mph) at Daytona since 1990.

"I think she's got a big advantage here,'' ESPN analyst Andy Petree said. "I think this is one of her best tracks to really shine and to have a legitimate shot at winning. To say she's a favorite? I wouldn't say that, but she is on the pole, she's got a chance to win.''

Patrick would not be considered a failure if she doesn't win. In 54 years of the race, only nine pole-sitters have won, and none since Dale Jarrett in 2000.

What would a victory today mean?

Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip told reporters last week that if Patrick wins, it would change stock car racing forever.

"It would take it to another level,'' he said.

Let's go a step farther. It would take sports to another level.

As Mike Joy, who will call today's race on Fox, said, news of Patrick winning the pole made the front pages.

"Not the front sports page, but the front page of the entire paper,'' he said.

Why does NASCAR need Patrick?

According to Fox, television audiences for Daytona are 50 to 60 percent higher than the other Sprint Car broadcasts. But Patrick's presence, particularly because she is starting in the front row, should make this the most-watched NASCAR race ever, breaking the record of 36 million who watched the 2006 Daytona 500. That could translate to new racing fans, which would benefit NASCAR as well as the networks that televise it: Fox, ESPN and Turner Sports.

However, Patrick needs to have some success. She doesn't have to win this season, but she has to be competitive.

"I think it's a huge opportunity if she succeeds because her reach to America is far greater than any other driver,'' Joy said. "She has a great following even outside the sport.''

NASCAR television ratings across all the networks have been unsteady in recent years. Last year, they took a downward turn — about a 25 percent drop in the key 18- to 34-year-old demographic — from 2011 and were the lowest in five years.

Patrick could give NASCAR a much needed and steady jolt.

Why does Patrick need NASCAR?

Patrick already has experienced some success in IndyCar racing. She won a race. She finished third in the Indianapolis 500. And while we can debate the merits of open-wheel racing versus stock car, there's no question NASCAR is the most popular form of auto racing in this country.

For Patrick to maximize her popularity, NASCAR is the place to be.

Can Patrick withstand all the pressure?

The pressure won't be the hard part for Patrick. It will be the actual driving.

"She is used to the pressure,'' Joy said. "There is no greater pressure-cooker in auto racing than the Indianapolis 500 and she has done well there both on the track and with all the media attention. She is probably much more media savvy than two-thirds of the drivers in (NASCAR).

"But she doesn't have a lot of experience in these stock cars and that's going to be telling as the season goes on. I think the best she can do is finish races, gain the trust of the people who are racing around her, score some good finishes and show progress, and I think everybody will be happy with that.''

Bottom line

With her endorsements and appearances as a spokeswoman and model, Patrick already is one of the most recognizable and marketable athletes in the world. She's believed to be worth $18 million and earns about $12 million a year in endorsements. Those numbers will blow up if she has any success at all this year. NASCAR's numbers — TV ratings, attendance, merchandise — will go through the roof, too.

When it comes to Patrick and NASCAR, the finish line today could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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