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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (R) celebrates securing the pole position with fellow Sprint Cup driver and inside pole winner Jeff Gordon during qualifying for the Daytona 500 on February 17, 2013. (Brian Blanco/Reuters)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (R) celebrates securing the pole position with fellow Sprint Cup driver and inside pole winner Jeff Gordon during qualifying for the Daytona 500 on February 17, 2013. (Brian Blanco/Reuters)

Motorsports

It’s all about Danica at the Daytona 500 this weekend Add to ...

It’s time for racing fans to brace themselves for a week-long, non-stop “can Danica win the Great American Race” extravaganza.

For those who haven’t heard, NASCAR’s star pupil Danica Patrick will start her first race as a full-time Sprint Cup driver from pole after putting up the fastest lap in qualifying on Sunday for the 2013 Daytona 500.

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While cynics will suggest that it seems a bit too perfect to be true, there’s no doubt that that the run-up to the Feb. 24 race will now be all-Danica, all the time love-in.

And, coincidentally, that’s exactly what NASCAR needs.

“I definitely think it’s good for the team and it’s good for [her sponsor] Go Daddy, it’s good for NASCAR,” Patrick said after she lapped the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at 196.434 miles per hour in her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Chevy.

“It’s good for the race itself. When they mention who is on the pole, they’re going to mention when the race is. That’s good for the whole sport.”

Now that just might be the understatement of the year and it’s only February. Having Patrick on pole for the Daytona 500 is likely the best thing that has happened to NASCAR since Jimmie Johnson didn’t win his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title in 2011.

Let’s just say that anyone who joins a drinking game during this year’s Daytona 500 where a shot gets downed when “Danica” and “pole” are mentioned in the same sentence will likely be slurring their words by about Lap 10.

As well known for her Sports Illustrated swimsuit appearances and racy Go Daddy television commercials as she is for her day job, Patrick switched from the IndyCar Series to NASCAR last year. NASCAR welcomed the erstwhile IndyCar media darling with open arms in its second tier Nationwide offering where she finished in the top-10 four times in 33 races and posted an average finish of 18th on her way to 10th overall. Only 13 drivers entered all 33 races.

In all, her performance on track was okay, but off the asphalt she soared. Patrick was easily the most popular driver in the Nationwide Series ― a title she also owned during her seven-year stay in IndyCar. She moved into a full-time spot in the top level Sprint Cup Series this year.

As a Nationwide rookie, her appeal put the spotlight on NASCAR wherever she roamed, something the stock car series needs in the face of declining ratings and attendance. So, having her conveniently on pole for the year’s biggest race is a boon for NASCAR.

Those who think that things don’t get manoeuvred in a way that brings the most publicity possible need only think back to the one time that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the black No. 3 made famous by his legendary dad. That was in 2010 Nationwide race at Daytona, where Earnhardt took what was seen by many as a gimme win that served as a huge public relations win for NASCAR.

There was a similar storybook ending when Dale Jr. returned to Daytona for the first time since his father died in a crash during the 2001 season opener. You guessed it, Junior won that day too. If you don’t think that was coincidence enough, you’ll never believe who was on pole for the Daytona 500 on the 10th anniversary of Dale Sr.’s death.

Or maybe fans only need to think back to the 2012 Nationwide season opener in Daytona when Patrick put her car on pole in her first race as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s second tier series. Whether by design or not, there’s no doubt that this year’s Daytona 500 qualifying ended with exactly what the doctor ordered for NASCAR, which has been taking a double hit in television ratings and attendance of late.

While its numbers are still great compared many sports, NASCAR’s slipping TV ratings continue to be a concern for the series. For example, last year’s Daytona 500 attracted a solid 13.7 million viewers, but that total was down 14 per cent from 2009 when almost 16 million took in the Great American Race. The 10-race Chase for the Cup championship playoff has fared no better, with the average number of fans glued to their TVs dropping by 23 per cent in the past four years, from a 5.5 million per race in 2009 to 4.2 million last year.

It was a similar story in NASCAR grandstands where fans continue to leave more and more seats empty. While it cited financial reporting concerns for the public companies that own the racetracks when explaining a decision to stop giving out attendance figures, NASCAR’s move to eliminate crowd totals in race reports could also be seen as a sign that the series has grown tired of seeing news about its declining numbers in the press.

Although most of the venues have been upgrading their facilities and reducing overall seats in the name of comfort, the days of 100,000-plus fans in the grandstands seem to be over. Last year, NASCAR averaged just under 98,000 fans per race, a drop of about 24 per cent from the almost 130,000 average in 2005.

The economic downturn and high unemployment since late 2008 hasn’t helped, but it also doesn’t explain it all away.

Those in the know understand that NASCAR’s future is in attracting younger fans, since current fans lean heavily to the older side of the spectrum. The series has lost significant numbers of male fans in the 18-34 age group, who coincidentally are the ones most likely to respond to Patrick.

So, the spotlight will stay focused on Patrick for the week ahead of the race while the rest of the field happily basks in her glow.

“I’ve always been a big believer in what’s good for the sport is good for all of us. So, this is great for the sport. The rest of us will benefit from that, as well,” said No. 24 Chevy driver Jeff Gordon, who qualified second and will start next to Patrick on the front row on Sunday.

“I’m glad I didn’t win the pole, we would have messed that story all up.”

The bonus is that NASCAR can get loads of publicity and hype from the Patrick pole, even though it usually means little in the actual race. The Daytona 500 has only been won from the front nine times by just seven drivers in 54 races, so starting on pole is no guarantee of success. The last driver to win from the No. 1 spot was Dale Jarrett when he took his third Daytona 500 victory in 2000. The only active NASCAR racer to have done it is Gordon.

In fact, the wild nature of the restrictor plate tilt, which features tight pack racing and often sees several large pile-ups called “Big Ones,” means that anything can happen and starting positions don’t really matter that much. In fact, half the Daytona 500s in the past decade have been won by drivers who started outside the top-10, with three of the past six winners lining up 32nd or worse on the grid.

So will Danica win? The odds say she won’t, but there’s no doubt that NASCAR certainly will.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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