Danica Patrick is surrounded by fans seeking autographs after Nationwide… (Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer…)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — — Because the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's most prestigious race, the sport immodestly refers to the event as "the Super Bowl of stock-car racing."
But this year that tag is a drop in the torrent of hype engulfing Sunday's race because of Danica Patrick.
Patrick turned the fastest lap to win the Daytona 500 pole a week ago, the first woman to earn the first starting spot for any race in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series.
In a matter of minutes, Patrick — and the heightened national curiosity about how she'll fare in the race itself — made this year's Daytona 500 much more compelling and ushered in "Danicamania" all over again.
The buzz surrounding Patrick was dampened somewhat Saturday by the crash in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series race at Daytona, where at least 28 spectators were hurt.
But Patrick's pole position was a welcome jolt for NASCAR and Fox, which televises the season-opening race, because the sport is trying to reverse sagging attendance and TV ratings in recent years.
And as the hype surrounding Patrick escalated last week and she made the rounds of talk shows, the conversation shifted to whether she now could win the Daytona 500.
"I think she can win," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said in an interview with The Times. "It's going to be hard, but it's possible. It would be a big deal for NASCAR if she does win."
Patrick, of course, already was a big deal for being a woman in a male-dominated sport, a role she's further leveraged with sexy marketing campaigns and a savvy media touch.
But there's always been the nagging question of whether Patrick, 30, truly can race with the best of them — she's won once in motor racing's big leagues — or whether she's just good enough to keep nurturing her "brand."
It's a question that sharply divides NASCAR fans and makes Patrick one of the most polarizing figures in sports.
Three days before capturing the pole, Patrick had put the NASCAR media — both professional and social — into a lather by freely talking to reporters about her new relationship with fellow Cup rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Patrick then moved the focus back to her driving by winning the pole in her No. 10 fluorescent green Chevrolet at Daytona International Speedway.
For one day at least — a day when there was only one car at a time on the high-banked, 2.5-mile track — Patrick knocked off Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and every other driver on NASCAR's A-list.
"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl," Patrick said. "We have a lot more history to make."
Owing to the peculiar nature of the Daytona track (more on that shortly), Patrick's shining moment at the front of the 43-car field might be brief Sunday. She could get passed on the first or second lap of the 200-lap race.
Yet Daytona also gives Patrick one of her best chances to win, and no woman has ever won a Cup race.
Patrick nearly won the legendary Indianapolis 500 in 2005 as a rookie in IndyCar racing, which triggered her rise to stardom.
NASCAR is now much more popular than IndyCar, and Patrick — who won one IndyCar race in her seven years in the series, in 2008 — began migrating to NASCAR in 2010.
Last year she raced full time in the Nationwide Series and also drove in 10 Cup races.
That included her first Daytona 500, where she started 29th but was collected in a crash on the second lap and finished 38th. Patrick also has raced in several Nationwide races there.
So she's familiar with Daytona, which along with the superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., is an anomaly among NASCAR tracks.
NASCAR caps the cars' speeds at those two tracks as a safety measure. The result is that the cars stay bunched together and drivers draft with each other to pass, which they do with alacrity.
If Patrick can avoid a wreck and mechanical woes, and find helpful drafting partners, she could be in a position to win. Two years ago, Trevor Bayne, then 20 years old, pulled just such an upset.
All that drafting is why Patrick's pole position means little once the green flag falls. Drivers can gain or lose several positions in a single lap.
But Patrick's pole demonstrated she's got a car to stay in the hunt. She's driving for one of NASCAR's premier teams, Stewart-Haas Racing, that uses engines from another top team, Hendrick Motorsports.
Patrick also is adept driving on long, high-speed tracks, as she demonstrated at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, another 2.5-mile track.
"She can draft," said Tony Gibson, her crew chief. "She knows how the air works. She gets a lot of that from IndyCar."
But no matter how the race unfolds, this much is certain: Patrick never has lacked for confidence despite years of naysayers asserting she's a mediocre racer.
"Can I win [the Daytona 500]? Yeah, absolutely," Patrick said. "Experience would help, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a chance to win."