Danica-mania a boost for NASCAR, too

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Only a few reporters, less than a quarter of the normal crowd, were waiting when four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon emerged from his hauler Wednesday.

"I expected a small crowd," Gordon said. 'Nothing big happening over here."

It was that way around the Cup garage.

There was more interest in IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick and her Nationwide Series debut than in any other driver or practice for Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races that will determine the Daytona 500 starting lineup after the front row.

Two of the first four questions for four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson were about Patrick. Gordon and everybody else got their fair share of the GoDaddy.com marketing darling, as well.

It's to the point one wonders whether the 500 will be overshadowed.

And whether NASCAR will change its name to DANICAR.

She's even stealing the spotlight from NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"This might be the first time we don't have to weave through cameras and media reporters when walking to our car, because they'll be in Danica's garage," said the co-owner of JR Motorsports, which fields Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet.

He was half-joking, but it's probably true.

Even though more than 70 percent of you said in an ESPN.com poll that the Daytona 500 is more intriguing than Patrick, that hasn't been reflected in the attention she has gotten.

The crowd around her before her first Nationwide practice compared with those around everybody else said it all.

"She handles it well, and we'll try to make sure it's not a distraction," said Earnhardt, who will start on the front row of the 500 beside pole-sitter Mark Martin. "We are there to do a job. We'd like to both have strong runs this weekend. It's a big race for our sponsors, and it's a big race for our sport. A lot of people will be paying attention."

Gordon predicts it might be the most-watched Nationwide Series race ever, just as Saturday's ARCA race was the most-watched ever.

"I'm as excited as anybody else to watch," he said. "It's exciting."

Gordon was among those who watched Patrick finish sixth in her stock car debut. He was impressed with the way she fell from the top 10 to last after a spinout on Lap 54 yet finished sixth and at how she aggressively exchanged sheet metal.

"She did a great job to be able to go out and have that pressure on you, to get spun through the grass … it was a good experience for her," he said.

But Gordon and others agree the Nationwide Series race will be a different animal, that "this next experience is really going to be eye-opening for her."

"I think it's a little too soon, personally," he added. "But I probably would have made the same decision if I were her."

Johnson doesn't question Patrick's decision. He was impressed with her ARCA debut and doesn't mind if she's overshadowing him.

"As long as it is bringing eyes to the television sets and putting butts in the seats in the stands, that is a good thing," he said.

All those things are happening. Daytona expects at least a 10 percent jump in attendance for the Nationwide race. ESPN added Wednesday's Nationwide practice to its television schedule.

That doesn't mean life has ceased in the other series. NASCAR made a tweak in the green-white-flag checkered rule, allowing multiple restarts as long as the leader hasn't taken the white flag for one lap to go.

Drivers continued to be aggressive in practice, as was evident by a multicar incident in Wednesday's second Cup practice that forced Johnson and Joey Logano to go to backup cars.

There also were plenty of funny lines. When asked how he excels in the draft, Denny Hamlin said, "Dale Jr. says I suck at it."

But if you want to know who got the most attention look no further than Patrick. There were as many photographers around her as she got into her car as there were around Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga on their red-carpet walks before the Grammys.

Patrick even got mentioned by Scott Speed and Regan Smith on Twitter.

"According to the media not only is Danica the most amazing racing driver since Dale Sr., but she also is related to Jesus," Speed said.

Said Smith, "Maybe ESPN could cover Danica on ESPN2 and the other 50-plus cars on ESPN classic or something."

For the most part, Patrick held her own Wednesday. She was 26th fastest in practice, ahead of current and former Cup drivers Carl Edwards, Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs, Jeff Green and Michael McDowell.

She worked well with several drivers in the draft and showed the same patience that made her strong in the ARCA event.

"There are some things I have to tolerate in this car," Patrick said on ESPN2. "This car is going to move around more. I'm not sure how much I'm going to have to put up with, but I need to learn what that is all about.

"If I can figure it out, we'll have a pretty fast car."

Patrick already has figured out how to avoid the media after practice, ducking her head and walking straight to her hauler without taking questions.

But the key is she's enjoying the experience.

"She is definitely having fun," said Kelley Earnhardt, co-owner of JR Motorsports. "I heard a lot of folks say this is the most fun she's ever had driving a car."

NASCAR hopes that Patrick continues to have fun and that more people continue to pay attention. And for now, it really doesn't matter where she finishes.

"I don't have any big expectations," Kelley said. "I would like for her to finish the race and not be involved in any crashes. A respectable top-15, top-20 finish would be nice."

A top-15 might send Danica-mania through the roof.

That's OK with Gordon, who doesn't really mind a little less attention in a week when he normally is the center of it.

"It's bringing attention to the whole sport," he said. "That's nothing but a good thing."

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