Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all took their daughters to meet Danica Patrick this week at Daytona International Speedway.
It was the ultimate backstage pass.
Patrick dropped to one knee, wrapped her right arm around Ella Gordon's waist and posed for pictures as the 5-year-old flashed an endless grin in Victory Lane last week. Every day since, Patrick's crew has handed out dozens and dozens of lugnuts to little girls clamoring for souvenirs. Annie Edwards wore GoDaddy green shoes for the special occasion. Evie Johnson recognizes only two cars, her Dad said—his and the green one.
"Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person because 'To her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn't exist,' " Patrick said. "Then after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls that wanted to meet me."
Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona—and with a brand new audience.
The first woman in history to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new eyeballs to Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. She'll lure in casual sports fans, women who don't know a muffler from a manifold, and little girls in awe of the glamorous driver and her fast green car.
It's an ambassador role Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race in the world. But it's so much more now.
"You can only lead by example and I don't necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world. That's not what I am trying to say," Patrick said. "But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is."
And right now, she believes her potential is to win "The Great American Race."
Patrick starts first on Sunday, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday's practice and mixing it up with NASCAR's biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.
"Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely," Patrick said. "I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn't mean I don't have a chance to win."
Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he's got a winner for Sunday. He was part of Derrike Cope's improbable 1990 victory, when Cope inherited the win when the late Dale Earnhnardt blew a tire on the final lap.
" She has got the talent," Gibson said. "She's already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I've seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know she's fast. She can draft. She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence she can win the Daytona 500.
"I remember Derrike Cope, nobody gave him a chance, either, but I saw him in Victory Lane. I know it can be done."
But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it—it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win—and Tony Stewart, Patrick's teammate and car owner, goes into Sunday's race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.
He's been quiet all week, except, of course, for the nine-car accident he started in an exhibition race last weekend. He lamented afterward, "That is why I haven't won a Daytona 500 yet. I'm not quite sure exactly which move to make."
Don't be fooled, though, by the three-time NASCAR champion. Stewart might just like being out of the spotlight as he heads into one of the few races missing from his resume, and being the favorite for the 500 has never worked out for him before.
He wrapped up his practice with one final run Friday to test his race engine and wound up on top of the speed chart. It was Stewart's intention to sit out Saturday's final day of practice.
"I'm excited we've made it through the whole week without a scratch on the car," he said. "We are as ready as you can get for the 500. I feel like we've got a car capable of winning the race. It's just a matter of whether the driver does a good job with the steering wheel."
The title of favorite this year goes to Kevin Harvick, who has two wins in two races so far at Speedweeks. The driver has dominated in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, led 63 of a possible 135 laps and didn't even bother to take the cover off his car in Friday's two practice sessions.
Harvick, the 2008 race winner, has come into the year with both focus and some inner peace after a pair of life-changing moments. His first child, son Keelan, was born after last July's race at Daytona. Then, in November, Harvick made the difficult decision to leave RCR after his 13th season with the organization that brought him into NASCAR and gave him his Cup ride the week after Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
He'll drive for Stewart next season at Stewart-Haas Racing, but is determined to make this last year with RCR count.
"Everybody is just working toward the same goal, that's winning the races," Harvick said. "We have to be professional anyway, whether it's lame duck or not. You can call it whatever you want. We're going to have a helluva lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs."
The 500 will be the first with a full 43-car field racing NASCAR's new Gen-6 car, which was designed all last season with input from teams, drivers and the manufacturers.
Part of the intent was to design a car that more closely resembled what the automakers sell in the showrooms, and NASCAR succeeded in that area. But NASCAR also needed a car that produced better on-track racing, and the verdict is not in yet.
There's a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 heading into Sunday, partly because drivers spent Speedweeks learning as much as they can about how it handles on the track. All three races so far have been largely uneventful, resembling something closer to a long parade rather than a high-speed spectacle.
If not for Kyle Busch's win in a Toyota in the second of Thursday's twin qualifying races, it would so far be a Chevrolet rout with Harvick taking the new SS to Victory Lane twice and Patrick winning the pole in her Chevy.
All bets could be off on Sunday, Busch warned.
"It might be we all ran single file because we were scared to run side-by-side," Busch said after Thursday's win. "I don't know. I was ready to put on a show, but I didn't have enough people around me to make one happen."