DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For so long, Danica Patrick was just a pretty girl in a fast car surrounded by a crack marketing staff who parlayed a few golden moments on the track into worldwide fame.
Her sexy Super Bowl ads and the revealing magazine shoots quickly outnumbered her actual career accomplishments. They still do, and she routinely takes Twitter broadsides from a fan base that has resented her since she first dabbled in NASCAR three years ago.
Her fiercely competitive nature and desire to keep her personal life private created the perception she is cold, standoffish,
Patrick has never flinched, and shes not flinching now on the doorstep of the biggest moment of her NASCAR career. She learned long ago to not care what people think about her, to tune out the critics and plug away at her race craft and at building the Danica empire.
All of that should help her in the pressure cooker of Daytona this week. After all, shes used to the spotlight more than almost any driver in history.
She already has a major accomplishment to tuck in her belt: She is the first woman in history to win the pole at NASCARs top level. That it came at the Daytona 500, The Great American Race, is somehow fitting because its Patrick.
The face of auto racing to many casual fans is now going to be the face of NASCAR every day this week leading into Sundays season-opener.
It comes during a rebirth for the 30-year-old Patrick.
Something shifted last season, when she realized a happy ending wasnt going to come in her seemingly picture-perfect life. All the effort and energy dedicated to maintaining Danicamania wasnt making her happy.
So she made significant life changes, splitting from her 47-year-old husband after seven years of marriage. In January came confirmation of what everyone in NASCAR already assumed – she was dating fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr..
Seemingly icy all those years, Patrick is suddenly an open book. She is putting herself out there much like a head-over-heels-in-love schoolgirl.
People tell me Ive changed. Maybe. Im happy, she said. You get kind of giddy about it, almost. Ricky and I like talking about each other. But life is just simpler now. I feel like I dont have to think as much. There was always an element of me that felt like I had to do the right thing all the time. Now I feel like I want to be me. I want to be relaxed, less calculated. My return on investment was not right, and I am done overthinking things.
If it seems as though Patrick has an opportunity at a fresh start, she is adamant that is not how she views this period of change.
I think everything you do lasts. It is who you are and where youve been and I wouldnt be here today if not for all the things Ive done up until this point, she said. But there are definitely some starting-overs that are clear and obvious. I think Im just doing what it takes to be happy and feeling at peace with what you do and who you are.
I always tell everyone, kids or adults, to just be yourself and be honest and I felt like I wasnt doing that myself.
Patrick makes no apologies for the attention she receives, and is taking a no-regrets attitude about much of her life.
Shes left behind IndyCar, maybe for good – shes sitting out the Indianapolis 500 for a second straight year – and she walked away from an unhappy marriage.
She doesnt always like the things the Danica marketing machine wants her to do, but shes a businesswoman who learned a long time ago from Bobby Rahal to prepare for a life after racing.
If theres anything she would do over, Patrick isnt saying.
I say that I learned an incredible amount in my 20s about everything, and about myself came at the end, she said. I learned a lot about people, relationships, business, employees. I enjoyed it all, and I learned a lot.
But I think it took me all the way until the last year how happy it makes me to be able to be myself, and how much I like myself. And you know, you take it or leave it. Thats it. This is me, people can take it or leave it.