DALLAS, Texas -– NASCAR needed to make a splash to start the new season, so when Danica Patrick won the pole position for this year’s Daytona 500, the timing could not have been better.
"It's pretty near perfect," said Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage. "This is an amazing thing to see her go out and see her do as well as she has done."
"The only thing that would have made it better - P.R. or hype-wise - [would have been] if Dale Junior was on the outside pole," said former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, who now co-hosts NASCAR RaceDay.
On Thursday, Patrick had a dress rehearsal of sorts, starting on the pole for the first 150-mile Budweiser Duel. She finished 17th, but she'll be back on the pole on Sunday.
"I'm not far enough removed from it to be able to understand what it really means," Patrick said. "I'm happy, I'm proud, and I also know that that big day is coming on Sunday, and I know that's the real challenge."
Being in the spotlight is nothing new for Patrick. She has found worldwide fame with her photo shoots and her commercial appearances during the Super Bowl.
Her popularity should provide a ratings boost on Sunday, even though not everyone sees eye-to-eye with her latest achievement.
"We heard Jimmy Johnson say this the other day: A monkey could drive a car around Daytona for qualifying," Petty said. "And that's not to take anything away from Danica, but at the same time, the driver just goes out there and just tries to be as smooth as possible and bring the car back in one piece. She did a phenomenal job of doing that."
Patrick’s personal life shares the spotlight. Her seven-year marriage came to an end in November. A few weeks ago, we found out she is now dating fellow rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"We're enjoying it," Patrick said. "I think we both laugh a lot when we get asked about each other."
"I'm not going to go crash somebody because they crashed her, or y'know, I’m going to go out there and drive hard every week," Stenhouse said.
NASCAR says when Patrick first starting racing in the Nationwide series, ratings went up 17 percent every time she hit the track. Now they're hoping for the same results as she goes full-time in the Sprint Cup Series.
Matt Kenseth, who is the defending champion at the Daytona 500, was asked if he is willing to draft with Patrick on Sunday.
"If you're drafting with someone, and they have a fast car and they keep making wrong moves and getting in the wrong lines and you keep moving backward, you're probably going to find someone else to follow or to draft with," Kenseth said. "I've found through the years, people want to draft with cars that are fast and people that are going to make the right moves and help you get to the front.