Patrick comfortable with big moments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Not quite eight years ago, a split-second gust of wind kept 23-year-old Danica Patrick from electrifying rather than just wowing the world. It kept her from winning the pole for the 2005 Indianapolis 500.

And it slowed down her life -- at least in comparison to what might have been.

Good, she reckoned Sunday after becoming the first woman to win the pole for the Daytona 500, or any Cup race, or any big-name motor race in the world, for that matter.

There were gusts and puffs here during qualifying, but none to faze the woman who'll turn 31 next month, whose hairdresser found a gray hair the other day ("I cried a little," she said).

That Saturday in May of '05, she was hurtling toward the brink of history at nearly 230 mph when a gust caught her car entering the first turn and sent it shooting sideways. Only her lightning reflexes kept her from crashing, warded off the accusations of choking.

"Great catch!" the top Indy drivers of the time told her.

Yet some historians recorded the moment as a mistake on her part. Yeah, well, had that first lap of qualifying been as fast as the ensuing three, she would have won the Indy pole as a rookie.

She qualified fourth and finished fourth, and life has been tough enough since then, enduring the waves of criticism that she is overrated because she is a woman and a glamorous one at that.

An early remark by the team owner who took her to Indy, Bobby Rahal, would seem a hex on her by now if not for one Indy win in Japan in 2008.

"What we cannot have," owner Bobby Rahal said early on, "is another Anna Kournikova." That is, another beautiful woman in the sports arena who masters TV commercials but not competition.

Rahal's words to me have echoed in my mind through all of Patrick's ordeals and frustrations, her crashes and her snits, the bashings she has taken on Web-sites, even this one.

Indeed, it has been tough enough as it is.

Imagine that the gust hadn't come across the first turn of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at that moment.

Indeed, as she went out to qualify a Tony Stewart-owned Chevrolet on Sunday, heralded again as the favorite, "I thought about Indy in '05," she said. "I thought about how I was kind of the favorite to win the pole going in.

"Then I thought, 'You know what? Maybe I wasn't ready.' Maybe it would have just been hard on me. Maybe my life would have been different, because of that happening."

Now, "I just feel comfortable and cool. I've been around for a long time now.

"And maybe now is the time."

Maybe too much history, too soon, could have crushed her. High as expectations have been, they'd have been 10-fold in the aftermath of winning the Indy pole as a rookie. Then, following the same path she has turned out to follow would have been abysmal.

As it is, she has learned comfort in the limelight in steps rather than leaps. She has learned not to over-expect from herself.

She has made no secret lately that she's smitten with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., an up-and-coming driver five years younger than her and without nearly the name recognition. She has handled what Kevin Harvick called "the TMZ side" of the NASCAR media corps with grace and good humor all week.

From that swirl, climbing into her car, she still had the cool to go out and drive a lap at 196.434 mph, so fast that only Jeff Gordon could come close, at 196.292.

"It's great to be part of history with Danica being on the pole," Gordon said. "I think we all know how popular she is, and what this will do for our sport."

Might all this mute her naysayers and, indeed, scoffers among fans? Probably not in the least.

"Naysayers are naysayers," Stewart said. "They're people that are unhappy with their lives and are trying to bring somebody else's life down to their level," Stewart said.

Danica Patrick, long past 23, pushing 31, unscathed by the limelight except for a gray hair or two, has "got a lot to look forward to," Stewart said. "I think she's going to turn some heads this summer. Whether it's consistent or whether it's one or two races at a time, none of us really know."

I asked her whether she feels like she seems -- that the limelight has become her comfort zone, where she's happiest.

"I think that when the pressure's on and the spotlight's on, it ends up being some of my better moments, better races and better results," she said.

"I don't know why that is, but I'm grateful for it. Because the opposite would be, I'm guessing, that I probably wouldn't be here today, and I wouldn't be in the position I'm in."

Maybe by now she would have been incinerated by the limelight, if that little gust of wind hadn't puffed away some of the heat, slowed the craziness around her, so early on.