Danica Patrick’s pole position for tomorrow’s Daytona 500 has brought the world’s top stock-car racing circuit plenty of attention. She needs to win the race to give the sport a boost.
“These last few years have not been the best,” Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG, a sponsorship consultant, said in a telephone interview.
Patrick becoming the first woman to post the fastest qualifying time for one of Nascar’s top-series races won’t be enough to offset declining attendance and television ratings that have reached a plateau, Andrews said.
“If she wins, that may be enough, but there’s a big difference between winning the pole and winning the race,” he said. “It’s a small step. If we’re really going to see her emerge as a superstar in racing and attract new fans, you’ve got to start with an actual race win first.”
Patrick, 30, took the first starting position for the race by posting the fastest qualifying lap of 45.817 seconds on Feb. 17 on the 2 1/2-mile track at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.
It’s the best qualifying position for a woman in Sprint Cup history, eclipsing a pair of ninth-place starts by Janet Guthrie in 1977. Guthrie started 18th in the 1980 Daytona 500, the previous best start for a woman at the stock-car league’s marquee event, dubbed “The Great American Race.”
Nascar has enjoyed a massive amount of publicity already because of Patrick, said Steve Phelps, the sport’s chief marketing officer.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said through a spokesman. “It takes us outside of sports and brings us to other areas as well.”
Patrick previously earned a pole position in Nascar’s second-tier Nationwide Series, as did Shawna Robinson in 1994. She is the only woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and the only one to win an IndyCar Series event, for open-wheel racers.
In 10 previous Sprint Cup races, Patrick’s best finish is 17th. She has one top-five finish in 58 career starts on the Nationwide Series.
The native of Roscoe, Illinois, made her first Daytona 500 start last year, qualifying 29th and finishing 38th after her car was damaged in a second-lap crash. Patrick also claimed the pole position for last year’s Nationwide Series season-opening race at Daytona and finished 38th.
That experience will serve her well, Andy Petree, a former Nascar driver and crew chief who now works as an analyst for Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s ESPN, said on a media conference call.
“She’s got a big advantage here,” Petree said. “I think this is one of her best tracks to really shine and to have a legitimate shot at winning. To say she’s a favorite, I wouldn’t say that, but she is on the pole, she’s got a chance to win.”
Patrick is a long shot, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
She has 40-1 odds of winning the season-opening race, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s Super Book. Twenty other drivers in the 43-car field have better odds of winning than Patrick, who made 10 starts in Sprint Cup events a year ago in her full-time Nascar debut.
Patrick said that inspires her.
“When pressure’s on, when the spotlight is on, I do feel like it ultimately ends up becoming some of my better moments, better races, better results,” she said.
The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole position was Dale Jarrett in 2000. Jeff Gordon also won it from the pole in 1999 and qualified second alongside Patrick for this year’s race.
Patrick has earned respect among many veteran drivers.
“For me it’s not about the color of your skin or your gender, it’s about your abilities,” Gordon, 41, a four-time Cup Series champion, told reporters in Daytona. “You have to prove that. Danica’s a talented race car driver. I love people that are willing to take chances and challenge themselves.”
Fans and reporters haven’t focused only on her driving skills.
Patrick is dating another driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. At a Feb. 14 media event, the first 19 questions posed to Patrick were about their relationship, even after she said she would only answer race-related questions. Patrick, who filed for divorce from her husband, Paul Hospenthal, in January, answered them all.
“I feel happy,” Patrick told reporters. “I am enjoying my life. It makes me smile to talk about him.”
When it comes to selling souvenirs, Patrick is making Nascar smile.
Sales of Patrick-related merchandise on Nascar’s website ranked eighth in 2012 and were up 100 percent from 2011, according to figures provided by the circuit. It declined to provide sales numbers. Since winning the pole position, Patrick products on Fanatics.com, a retailer of licensed sports merchandise, are up more than sixfold compared with sales for the month of January, the company said, also declining to provide figures.
Even with the increase in memorabilia sales, Patrick’s fulltime move to Nascar from IndyCar Series racing in 2011 hasn’t been enough to boost flagging attendance figures.
Ticket revenue at Daytona-based International Speedway (ISCA) Corp., Nascar’s largest track operator, was $136 million in 2012, down 6 percent from 2011 and 42 percent from a high of $236 million in 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The company’s revenue has declined for five straight years.
Since 2008, seating capacity at its tracks has been reduced by 16 percent to meet demand and project “favorable optics” on television, the company said in January. Dan Houser, International Speedway’s chief financial officer, said on a Jan. 24 conference call that the decline was mostly due to the economy.
Regardless of ticket sales and attendance, Patrick’s competitors said they know when they see history in the making and are happy to be part of it.
“It’s obviously a big moment, a great boost for the sport,” Gordon said. “It’s awesome. I’m glad I didn’t win the pole, we would have messed that story all up.”
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