Danica adds Coke to her portfolio

May, 10, 2012
05/10/12
2:59
PM ET

CONCORD, N.C. -- There's a certain aura, a rock star quality, around Danica Patrick. You can see it in the way she carries herself around the racetrack, and you can hear it in the way she speaks with great confidence -- even when it's about things she's not confident about, such as her debut at Darlington Raceway.

Sometimes you can even feel it.

Such was the case on Thursday as Patrick was introduced as the first female member of the Coca-Cola Racing Family.

Never mind that she hasn't won a race during her short time in NASCAR. Never mind that she's not even a full-time driver in the top series. Fans are drawn to her in much the same way they are to Dale Earnhardt Jr. because she represents something that goes beyond trips to Victory Lane.

Naturally, sponsors such as Coca-Cola are drawn, too.

"With all of our celebrity talent, with all of our athletes, we have a plethora of criteria," said Sharon Byers, Coca-Cola's senior vice president of sports and entertainment. "We don't just sign up for winners. We sign for the personalities on the track, off the track, what they represent as an individual."

Patrick represents what NASCAR needs more of: diversity and sex appeal. She climbed out of a race car on Thursday wearing six-inch stilettos and a tight black outfit with a plunging neckline. Ryan Newman, the other member of the Coca-Cola family here, wore blue jeans and a red shirt.

Newman doesn't do stilettos.

Or tight clothing.

Thank you for both.

Those things help create that aura around Patrick. She generates as much interest over what her 10th race will be -- likely Homestead or another Chase race over Indianapolis -- as Newman does talking about how team owner Tony Stewart got away with not being fined for his sarcastic comments at Talladega.

How long Patrick can get away with being a marketing machine without competing for wins will be the interesting twist. Maybe that won't matter. Earnhardt hasn't won since 2008, he's never won a Cup title, and his fan base remains the largest in the sport.

And bottom line, it's way too early to judge Patrick on what she can do in a stock car. This is only her first full season in NASCAR without IndyCar racing hanging over her head.

It may be two or three years before we truly know whether she can be a top-level driver.

But the good news, as we saw again on Thursday: Everything she represents is solid enough that she has the sponsorship and backing to hang around to find out whether she can succeed, to find out whether she can be a true member of the Cup racing family and not just a member of the Coca-Cola Racing Family.

"I don't know if anyone can put as much pressure on me to do well as I do for myself," Patrick said as she prepared for her second Cup race on Saturday at Darlington Raceway. "I of course want to do well for [sponsors]. I understand they're there because of everything I represent at this point."

But in the end, Patrick wants to represent the sport as a winner, not a media darling.

She wants to earn respect as a driver almost as much as she wants to earn her first Darlington stripe.

Meanwhile, she sure can sell herself and her sponsors. When Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith mentioned that sales were up 30 percent at a track concession stand since Danica's Fit Fuel menu was added a year ago, Patrick was ready with the suggestion that they add Coke Zero to the menu.

"No calories," she said. "All the taste with no guilt. Promise."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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