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Danica Patrick NASCAR press conferenceThe 54th running of the Daytona 500 kicks off the 2012 Sprint Cup series and the start of a new season of stock-car racing.  Forty-three of the top drivers in the world will compete in “The Great American Race,” NASCAR’s biggest, richest and most prestigious event. While the Daytona 500 is a huge motor racing event on its own, it is made even larger this year because of the debut of Danica Patrick, the country’s most popular female race driver, who becomes just the third woman to take the green flag.

It might seem intimidating to have the eyes of the world watching, but Patrick knows a bit about life in the fast lane. Over the past seven years, the diminutive driver has become one of the biggest brands in motor racing. In her rookie year in the IndyCar Series, she finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500, open-wheel racing’s premier event, and even held the lead late in that race. After racing full-time in the IndyCar Series, Patrick now makes the switch to a full-time ride in NASCAR. Her gradual transition to stock-car racing began in 2010, when she drove a part-time schedule in the second-tier Nationwide Series with as her sponsor.  Having started 13 Nationwide events in 2010 she ended the year 43rd in the points standings

Patrick did better last season although she competed in just 12 of the 33 race starts. She did have a couple of top-ten finishes, which was one of her goals. Patrick came in fourth at Las Vegas Speedway and finished 10th at Daytona International Speedway in July in a race that she actually led for 13 laps. The fourth-place finish is the highest ever by a female driver in a NASCAR national event.

Patrick is scheduled to compete in all 33 Nationwide races in 2012 and also run in 10 Sprint Cup events beginning this weekend. She held her own in qualifying for the Daytona 500 racing faster than both two-time winner Michael Waltrip and 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch. Qualifying 29th wasn’t close to having historical significance especially since she had a guaranteed spot based on a partnership made between Stewart Haas and Tommy Baldwin Racing, a move some believe is the equivalent of buying her way into the race. Her starting position won’t be determined until Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying races.

“To say I wasn’t nervous at all is a lie,” Patrick said. “Of course I was, a little bit. I want to do a good job.”

As expected, Patrick drew enormous attention from the media and racing fans many of whom consider her a sex symbol. In fact, what most people see first – before they see a race car driver – is the fact that Patrick is an attractive young woman. In 2003 she famously did a photo shoot for FHM magazine draped over a classic car while wearing very little and she’s followed up with a number of provocative marketing campaigns. Patrick told reporters at NASCAR media day that she was over being called sexy but Laurie at Draft Day Suit thinks the lady doth protest too much.

Since the Daytona 500 is known for creating legends, breathtaking moments and  unforgettable memories, many are wondering what will happen when Patrick’s skills are matched to the max against the best drivers in the sport. Will we see another first-time winner?  Last year, Trevor Bayne came from nowhere and at the age of 20 became the youngest winner of the Great American Race.

Although Patrick herself concedes that the odds are extremely long that she would win the Daytona 500 in her first attempt, she has supporters who are more optimistic including her team co-owner Tony Stewart. “Anything can happen here. It’s anybody’s ballgame. Talent-wise, there’s no doubt in my mind she got the ability to do it.”

If Patrick does well, every talent scout will be looking for the “new” Danica (if they aren’t already). The fact is somewhere in America right now is a girl setting records at her local track dreaming of being the next NASCAR star. Thanks to Patrick, it’s not a gender specific dream anymore.

All the action begins Sunday February 26, 2012 1:00 pm ET at the Daytona International Speedway.

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