DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
The big boys brought their little girls to see NASCARs shining star.
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 Gordons waist and posed for pictures as the 5-year-old flashed an endless grin in Victory Lane last week.
Every day since, Patricks 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 its good that she sees me in real life and in person because, To her, you are like some mythical creature that doesnt exist, Patrick said. Then after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. Thats 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 NASCARs elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new eyeballs to todays season-opening Daytona 500. Shell lure in casual sports fans, women who dont know a muffler from a manifold, and little girls in awe of the glamorous driver and her fast green car.
Its 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 its so much more now.
You can only lead by example, and I dont necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guys world. Thats 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 will start first today, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Fridays practice and mixing it up with NASCARs 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 a 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 doesnt mean I dont have a chance to win.
Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced hes got a winner. He was part of Derrike Copes 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. Shes already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what Ive seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know shes 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, Patricks teammate and car owner, goes into todays race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.
Hes 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 havent won a Daytona 500 yet. Im not quite sure exactly which move to make.
Dont 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 résumé, and being the favorite for the 500 never has 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 Stewarts intention to sit out Saturdays final day of practice.
Im excited weve 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 weve got a car capable of winning the race. Its 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 didnt even bother to take the cover off his car in Fridays 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 Julys 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.
Hell 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: thats winning the races, Harvick said.
The 500 will be the first with a full 43-car field racing NASCARs new Gen-6 car, which was designed all last season with input from drivers, the manufacturers and the teams.
Theres a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 heading into today, partly because drivers spent Speedweeks learning as much as they can about how it handles on the track.
If not for Kyle Buschs win in a Toyota in the second of Thursdays 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 green Chevy.
All bets could be off today, Busch warned.