You'd have thought she'd won the race, the way she was showered with love after finishing eighth last Sunday in the Daytona 500. When Danica Patrick climbed out of her No. 10 Chevy on pit road after making history by becoming the first female to lead laps at Daytona, she was hugged by her crew chief, Tony Gibson, who yelled, "Who said a girl can't do this crap!" And as Patrick faced 20 cameras while leaning against her car, a female fan remarked, "How does she look so good after 500 miles of racing?" Then Patrick walked into the Daytona infield, where admiring fans swarmed her like a conquering hero.
Patrick was fast all during Speedweeks at Daytona. She consistently topped the speed charts in practice and on Feb. 17 she became the first woman in the history of NASCAR to win a pole. As she chatted with Gibson in the Daytona garage two days before the Great American Race, her father, T.J., stood nearby.
"Danica is just so happy right now and smiling all the time," he said as he looked at his daughter. "When she was growing up driving Go Karts she'd whip everybody's ass when she was happy and carefree. But when she was dead serious she'd struggle. I think a big reason why she's doing so well right now is because she's in such a great spot in her life."
Yes, Patrick is in a pitch-perfect personal place -- she's dating rival rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and, when asked, she'll giddily tell you all about it -- and now she and the rest of the Cup Series head to Phoenix, where Patrick has a house. If there is one track on the Cup schedule other than Daytona where Patrick feels comfortable, it is Phoenix International Raceway. She raced several time on the one-mile oval in the IndyCar Series, and last November she was running near the top-10 at PIR before stumbling late and coming in 17th, which before Daytona was her best career finish in the Cup series.
Can she contend for the checkers on Sunday like she did at Daytona? It's highly unlikely, because she's still learning the nuances of driving in the Cup series and PIR requires much more out of the driver -- you actually have to brake, for instance, on the flat track, unlike at Daytona. A good day for Patrick, in my view, would be to finish on the lead lap and wind up in the top 15. But make no mistake: all eyes -- and all cameras -- will be on Danica on Sunday.
Here are four other drivers to watch, including my pick to win Race No. 2 of 2013:
Last week, a blue-moon rare thing occurred: I actually called the top two finishers of the Daytona 500
Yet it was a stellar day for Earnhardt. He struggled with his handling for most of the afternoon at Daytona and then made a charge late to finish second in the 500 for the third time in four years. Sunday will be a telling afternoon for the 88 team. In seasons when Earnhardt has been good, he's flourished at PIR. But in seasons when's he's been a mid-pack driver, he's struggled in the desert. You never want to put too much weight on a single race so early in the nine-month marathon that is the NASCAR season, but I think this is an important weekend for Earnhardt. I expect a top-five run out of the No. 88 team on Sunday.
If you were to poll the garage on who is the early favorite to win the 2013 Cup championship -- which I did last week at Daytona -- you'd learn that Hamlin is the frontrunner. He had a car fast enough to win the 500 (he led 33 laps), but he lost the draft late and finished 14th.
PIR is one of Hamlin's best tracks on the circuit. He won this race last year and finished second in Phoenix in November. He's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.
Harvick almost had a perfect Speedweeks. He won the preseason Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona, won his qualifying race, then appeared to have enough power under the hood to reach Victory Lane in the 500, but he got caught up in a mid-race wreck and wound up 38th.
Harvick will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing at season's end, and he joked at Daytona about being a "lame duck" driver at Richard Childress Racing. But it won't be funny for Harvick if he keeps floundering in the early races of 2013, because it will positively destroy the morale of a team that already knows its driver will be somewhere else next year. So this is a big race for Harvick. He should deliver: He took the checkered flag at PIR last November.
You could feel a sense of dread fall over the garage in the moments after the 500 while Johnson was standing in Victory Lane, as if everyone on every team knew that the 48 team was once again going to be a powerful force for the 2013 season. Yes, it was only one race, but the last time NASCAR introduced a new car design, back in 2007, Johnson won the title. And now it certainly appears that he and his crew chief Chad Knaus have adapted to the new "Gen-Six" car quicker than anyone else in the sport.
Johnson is typically fast at PIR. He's won four times at the one-mile track and he came in fourth here 12 months ago. If Johnson doesn't end up in the top five on Sunday, it would be an upset. But it says here that he won't be able to catch Hamlin, who may very well win two of the next three races.