The Dallas Morning News

Patrick speeding toward exit ramp

Final NASCAR race moves her a step closer to next stage of her life

- Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick was annoyed with herself. She had trained most of her life for moments like these, but she couldn’t fix the inadverten­t mess she had just made.

On the first leg of the “Danica Double,” Patrick was in a scrum of reporters — the last place she wanted to be — in the middle of a long day of media obligation­s for the Daytona 500. New boyfriend Aaron Rodgers was on his way to the track, the NFL quarterbac­k’s first visit to her motorhome, and her cramped schedule was spoiling Valentine’s Day.

So when asked an innocuous question about preparing for the final laps of her career, at the Indianapol­is 500 in May, Patrick casually replied. Too casually.

She said she was not yet thinking about the transition to IndyCar because “I didn’t have time to meet up with Ed and the people.”

Patrick immediatel­y recognized the gaffe.

She had accidental­ly revealed she’ll drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in her final Indy 500. The cat was out of the bag, and a splashy announceme­nt with sponsor GoDaddy in the coming months was ruined. Even worse? In that moment, she was powerless to fix it.

She twice cursed away from the microphone.

“I’ve never done that in my career,” Patrick finally said.

She looked for one of her representa­tives, to no avail. She complained about how long the interview session was taking, and her answers became clipped, her annoyance apparent.

When finally dismissed, Patrick climbed down from a director’s chair and stomped her foot in anger.

That moment says everything there is to know about the Daytona 500 and its role in the “Danica Double.”

There are 500 miles left in Patrick’s NASCAR career and no one wants them to come faster than Patrick. She turns 36 in March and began racing when she was 10. She moved from Illinois to England alone as a teenager to pursue her career. She became a famous driver and a cunning businesswo­man who never before botched a sponsor-related reveal.

So good at protecting and promoting her brand, Patrick had nearly twice the “media hits” during NASCAR’s offseason than current champion Martin Truex Jr. The marketing consulting firm Joyce Julius & Associates credited Patrick with 11,319 hits to Truex’s 5,783. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Patrick’s boyfriend for five years until the couple broke up at the end of last season, was third on the list with 5,002.

Patrick is the only woman to have started the Daytona 500 from the pole. She’s the only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500. She’s the highest-finishing woman in the race. Now, the only woman to accomplish nearly every meaningful statistic in American auto racing will run her final NASCAR race Sunday, and then Patrick is free.

Sunday’s race is just one last go in a bright-green Chevrolet for the former GoDaddy girl. Her car is fielded by Premium Motorsport­s and crew chiefed by Tony Eury Jr., who guided her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR that began in 2010. She has a good engine, strong enough that she can probably be racy if she wants to Sunday.

The Daytona 500 is just a dress rehearsal to the Indy 500, the race that really matters, and it’s just one more hurdle in Patrick’s path to living her best life. In two newsconfer­ence settings and one interview with The Associated Press, she perhaps unconsciou­sly revealed how truly ready she is to cut ties with auto racing.

She may be emotional Sunday. She was in November when she unexpected­ly burst into tears while announcing retirement plans. But if she is, it will be about the finality of the day. Then she’ll remember the future, that the rest of her life is calling, and there are only 500 more miles in a fire suit remaining. Her next chapter will involve fitness, cooking, promoting a happy lifestyle and living a fabulous Instagram life.

“Imagine when you leave here on Sunday, you don’t have anything to do really for a couple of months,” she said. “Seems pretty exciting, doesn’t it? Right? That’s how I feel.”

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