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Friday, December 18, 2009
Updated: December 19, 9:40 PM ET
Danica shows she's willing to work

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick arrived in the hotel lobby for breakfast around 7:10 a.m. on Friday, her sleek black hair still wet from the shower as she made her way toward the buffet line wearing a baggy T-shirt and blue jeans.

She looked like, well, everybody else that had just crawled out of bed.

This isn't the image most have of the IndyCar Series star that has NASCAR Nation all abuzz as she prepares to embark on a partial ARCA and Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports.

Most see her as she was during a Thursday press conference at JRM's Mooresville, N.C., shop, decked out in four-inch stilettos with tight black pants and a black leather jacket. Or as she was in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, leaning over a car wearing a skimpy black bikini that leaves little to the imagination.

Most see the glitz.

The glamour.

The sex appeal.

Friday at Daytona International Speedway, where the ARCA Series began a three-day test, Patrick embarked on a trip that one day could end with her in NASCAR's top series. But Friday is a long way from all of that. It's a place where young drivers -- and maybe a few old -- with dreams of the big-time come without well-funded teams, hoping to be discovered.

It's a developmental league, the equivalent of sending Tom Brady to the Arena Football League or Alex Rodriguez to Class A baseball.

It's so far down the stock-car food chain that the car behind Patrick's as she waited on pit road for her first trip around Daytona had the driver's name (Chris Lawson) written in black magic marker on a piece of tape and the car number (54b) taped between two large patches of gray bondo.

"It does have a little bit of a grassroots feeling," Patrick said after a five-lap, seven-minute day that was ended by yet another cloudburst. But Patrick doesn't mind. She's willing to do whatever it takes to see if she has what it takes to make the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR, a transition some with more impressive credentials have failed at.

She felt worse for crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and JRM competition director Tony Eury Sr. for having to be at the ARCA test than for herself.

"It just shows how committed they are, and that means a lot to me," she said.

Danica Patrick and Tony Eury Jr.
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Danica Patrick converse during Friday's ARCA test at Daytona.

Having Patrick here means a lot to NASCAR. Her star power and ability to expand into new markets is the kind of boost the sport needs after several years of declines in television ratings, attendance and sponsor interest.

NASCAR needs Patrick. That's why chairman Brian France and board member Lesa France Kennedy were two of the first to call her when she became free to negotiate. That's why president Mike Helton happened to stop by the JRM garage stall moments before Friday's test began.

"I don't know that I'd use the word need," Helton said. "It doesn't hurt us to have good storylines, and this is certainly a good storyline. It can't hurt."

One look at the scene around Patrick on Friday was proof of that. She spent most of this rainy day followed by nine photographers and half a dozen television camera crews. There were national reporters at an event that typically barely draws coverage from the local paper.

She described it as a circus, and it was.

And it will only continue to grow, particularly if early merchandise sales are any indication. According to one official close to the situation, Patrick was ranked among the top five NASCAR drivers in sales during the first full weekend her stuff was on the market.

It took four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson five or six years to reach that level.

"It can't be anything but good for our sport," long-time Cup driver Ken Schrader said as he witnessed Patrick's first lap from the wall at the exit of pit road. "I want to see her do good."

Asked if he'd ever seen so much media at an ARCA test, Schrader laughed and said, "At an ARCA race."

He was joking, but there was truth to it. Steve Arpin, an ARCA driver who dreams of reaching the Cup level, took a moment to let Patrick know how much he appreciated her presence in the garage.

"She's helping each and every one of us by being here," he said. "I hope she makes it."

Patrick sparks an interest that, as team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "is bigger than a lot of people realize."

"The reality hasn't really set in," he added. "Once it does, people will go, '… we can see her at X racetrack next Saturday.' That's when there's going to be some excitement."

What's really exciting is this is the first time in NASCAR's modern era a woman has been given a legitimate opportunity to succeed with top equipment and a sponsor willing to pay what it takes to keep her in it. Others that have come before, from Janet Guthrie to Sarah Fisher, never had cars truly capable of winning as those that will be supplied by JRM.

Danica Patrick/Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said no one realizes yet how big a deal his new driver, Danica Patrick, may be in NASCAR.

"That's a big part of it, and obviously JR Motorsports has got a reputation for equipment that works in the Nationwide garage," Helton said. "It sounds like all the ingredients are together."

Kelley Earnhardt, who co-owns JRM and is now 37, is envious because she ultimately gave up driving at an early age because the environment wasn't right for women in the sport.

It may not be ripe now for any woman outside of Patrick.

"So for her to be in the position she's in, she has got the best opportunity that a female has ever gotten in our sport," Kelley said.

If Patrick succeeds, NASCAR will be the big winner. She will put the sport in publications never dreamed of before, publications that not even Carl Edwards and his rock-star abs can. The New Yorker, which has more than a million subscribers, had a reporter at Daytona.

A week before Christmas.

That's star power the sport can't buy.

"She's a marketing powerhouse and has done very well for herself," Kelley said.

And it's not just because Patrick is a woman. Milka Duno, the Venezuelan driver who has made the past three Indianapolis 500s and finished second in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2007, made her ARCA debut in a Braun Racing car on Friday.

She wasn't stalked by photographers or hounded for interviews. She wasn't brought into the media center for reaction to her first day.

She didn't get a visit from Helton.

"I am not one that likes to make show and sell so many seats," Duno said.

Patrick does make show and sell seats. New Hampshire Motor Speedway president Jerry Gappens flew to North Carolina on Thursday with five live lobsters to bribe Patrick into competing in his Nationwide race in late June.

He estimated she was worth an additional 5,000 to 10,000 in ticket sales.

Patrick understands that. Some say she takes advantage of her star power at the negotiation table.

Who cares? Tell me an NBA or NFL star who doesn't take advantage of their box-office appeal during contract negotiations.

Then tell me this: how many would be willing to start over at a level way below what they're used to like Patrick has? With the exception of Michael Jordan, who took a break from the NBA to play minor league baseball, not many.

Maybe Patrick's experiment in stock cars will fail as Jordan's experiment with baseball did.

Maybe it won't, and in three years she'll have a full-time Cup ride. Maybe she'll move from the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Nationwide car at JRM to the No. 5 -- or 7 -- GoDaddy.com sponsored car now being driven by 50-year-old Mark Martin at Hendrick Motorsports.

If that happens, all the glitz and glamour and sex appeal Patrick brought to IndyCar will come to NASCAR.

Meanwhile, she's willing to get her hands dirty in the ARCA series, to go places unbefitting the image she has worked so hard to create.

She's willing to look as though she just got out of bed instead of ready to attend the ball.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.