History-making Patrick can provide inspiration for generation
Amid the adjectives invoked by journalists, the clamor by fans on Twitter and the soon-to-be round-the-clock TV discussions with and about Danica Patrick winning the pole for next weekend's Daytona 500, the race is on to put Patrick's run into perspective.
Yes, Patrick became the first woman to win a pole for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race and did it for the series' biggest race. Only twice before in NASCAR Sprint Cup history had a woman started in the top 10. Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, started ninth at Talladega and Bristol in 1977.
Now the quest is on to forecast how many more people will watch the Daytona 500 or pay attention to NASCAR because Patrick outran the rest of the Cup stars on a sunny but cold Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard predicted on Twitter shortly after Patrick won the pole that the Daytona 500 would have its largest TV rating ever.
While Patrick's accomplishment will put NASCAR in front of even those who are not fans -- and may only know her as someone who shows up in Super Bowl ads each year or as that female racer dating another driver -- the true indication of her power won't be seen just in Nielsen ratings, Twitter trends or any other ranking.
It will be what the sport looks like in two decades.
She could have the impact Jeff Gordon has had on the sport the past 20 years. While Gordon's first Cup race came in Richard Petty's final ride in 1992, it was the following season at Daytona where Gordon truly was introduced to the public. During a time when young drivers didn't get good rides, a 21-year-old Gordon shocked many by winning his qualifying race and starting third in the 1993 Daytona 500 for car owner Rick Hendrick. Gordon would go on to finish fifth in that race, beginning a legacy that includes four championships and 87 victories.
As Gordon's success grew, so did his influence. Many of today's top young drivers looked to Gordon when they were younger. When Kyle Busch was 14 years old, he attended a test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and patiently waited for Gordon, his favorite driver, to sign a few items. Busch brought 18 die-cast cars. Gordon signed them all. Joey Logano has said that he was younger, he thought Gordon was the best driver.
It wasn't just because they liked Gordon that they became racers or made it to NASCAR's highest level. Gordon provided the inspiration and hope that all their toils and challenges could be rewarded one day.
That's what Patrick provides for girls.
"It's nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say, 'But, mommy, daddy, that's a girl out there,' '' Patrick said when asked what her performance might mean. "Then they can have the conversation with their kid about you can do anything you want and being different doesn't by any means not allow you to follow your dreams. I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I'm doing.''
It's a conversation that started in 2005 when Patrick nearly became the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 and has been ongoing since as evident of her popularity whether it's the lines for her souvenirs or her fans voting her as the most popular driver in the Nationwide Series last season.
Gordon's 5-year-old daughter, Ella, even got a picture with Patrick on Sunday. It's one thing for a little girl to see her father compete, but to see someone like her race and show its possible can be more meaningful. Even if Ella doesn't become a racer, there could be some who see Patrick and want to go as fast as their favorite driver.
"I've always been a big believer in what's good for the sport is good for all of us,'' said Gordon, who will start next to Patrick for the 500. "So this is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that, as well. I'm proud to be on the front row this year side-by-side with Danica.
"I think Danica's a talented race car driver. She proved that by getting herself into IndyCar, doing what she did in IndyCar. She has taken on quite a task to take on stock cars that are completely foreign to her. I kind of admire somebody that's willing to take that leap. I love people that are willing to take chances and challenge themselves.''
It's only fitting Patrick and Gordon will be together at the front of the field. What Gordon started 20 years ago by showing youngsters the path to NASCAR, Patrick can do the same.