Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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People's choice hits racing like a Tiger

It's impossible to root against Danica Patrick.

The Indianapolis 500 changed everything. Patrick's improbable fourth-place finish at Indy, the best ever for a woman, not only made her the darling of racing fans everywhere, it forced us to take her seriously.

Patrick's no publicity stunt, a pretty face bereft of talent. She's the top rookie in the IndyCar Series and the most popular driver by a margin that is darned near ridiculous.

The public has spoken: Ratings on ABC for the Indy 500 were 60 percent higher than the previous year.

Petty jealousy from other racers notwithstanding, Patrick, the Sports Illustrated cover girl, is the people's choice.

Wouldn't it be great if Danica's first victory came in Sunday's Firestone 400 at Michigan International Speedway? Wouldn't that feel good?

Indy racing needs a feel-good story like Patrick. Before Patrick, nobody outside the sport knew who Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon was.

She's bringing new fans to the IRL. Rarely does an individual impact an entire sport to the point where everyone is aware of their every move at all times.

Patrick, 23, is that exception.

Patrick has it all - good looks, a big bank account, derring-do confidence, and Britney Spears-like magnetism.

She is the prism through which the outside world now views the Indy Racing League.

So if that means Patrick's autograph session last week at the IRL race in Milwaukee was separate from the other drivers' because she has a larger fan base, don't hate the player, guys, hate the game.

"I have nothing against the guys. I think they recognize the fact I don't control those sessions. It's out of my hands, really," Patrick said during a teleconference promoting Sunday's race. "I show up where I'm supposed to and sign as many autographs as I can and hopefully put smiles on some peoples' faces.

"The attention that's happening is good. I think a lot of people recognize that, drivers and teams. The more people that are watching, the better, and the sport will grow."

Patrick has been very, very good to the Indy Racing League. She's great for business. Her impact is similar to how Tiger Woods first impacted the PGA Tour.

Everybody wanted a piece of Tiger - fans, sponsors, media.

However, some of Woods' peers who felt he received too much publicity his first couple of years on the tour weren't exactly Tiger fans, which was silly because at the same time he was putting more money in their pockets.

Tiger, though, was a big winner on the golf course right away.

Comparing Woods and Patrick makes sense only in the fact that Patrick needs a win to legitimize all the hype.

She needs to win so that she won't be considered by her peers to be just another pretty face and a marketer's dream. What people fail to realize is that she's navigating a race car at more than 220 mph around hairpin turns with a highly competitive field in chase. Looks and marketing are not a factor on the racing grid.

It takes the average IRL driver 33 races to win a race. Patrick, who is making her 11th start, will be a third of the way there after Sunday's race.

But will the hype surrounding her every move continue if she doesn't deliver a victory?

Will the excitement surrounding Patrick still be at a fevered pitch a year from now if she hasn't won a race? Two years from now?

Ultimately, Patrick's ability to win will determine how long she sustains her popularity.

"Let's look at the big picture here. It takes a lot longer than eight or 10 races to win a race for the first time - most of the time," she said. "As much as I go into each weekend thinking 'I really want to win,' there's never a 'have to.' It will come when it comes.

"I have a good feeling. Optimism and confidence can carry you a ways. I go into this weekend with a little bit of that and having the momentum off of what's been building through the year."

With the spotlight she's had since the Indy 500, each of Patrick's races is magnified. She welcomes the challenge. What's more, she believes she's good enough to win every race, starting Sunday at MIS.

This is getting interesting.

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