DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick has a photo of her in the car at Daytona, on the receiving end of two thumbs up from Richard Petty.
“It’s a back shot of his butt sticking out,” Patrick said, smiling.
It had been the extent of the interaction between the pair – just a playful sign of encouragement from the Hall of Famer to one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers.
Turned out, Petty must have thought Patrick was taking the wheel in a race she had no chance at winning.
Patrick spent most of her appearance at Daytona 500 media day Thursday brushing off criticism from The King that the only way she could win a Sprint Cup race was “if everybody else stayed home.”
She refused to fire back at Petty, a seven-time champion, politely stating he was entitled to his opinion. Patrick handled the comments much in the same way she dismissed Kyle Petty’s remarks last year that “she’s not a race car driver.”
“It has nothing to do with where it comes from,” she said. “The people that matter the most to me are my team, my sponsors and those little 3-year-old kids that run up to you and want a great big hug and say they want to grow up to be like you. That’s the stuff I really focus on.”
Patrick talked at length about almost every topic but racing for the second straight year to kick off Daytona. She spent her 20-minute session last year answering questions about her new relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This year, Stenhouse again was a hot topic, with people wanting to know: What are the couple’s Valentine’s Day plans?
“I did say to him yesterday, ‘Hey babe, I feel like I shouldn’t be thinking about this because it should be your job, but would you like me to ask someone to make reservations at a restaurant,”’ she asked.
Odds are, the famous pair won’t be asking the Pettys to join them for a bite to eat.
Petty gave NASCAR plenty to chew on last week when he said Patrick only gets attention because she’s a woman, but added that publicity is good for NASCAR.
“If she’d have been a male, nobody would ever know if she’d showed up at a racetrack,” Petty said. “This is a female deal that’s driving her. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s good PR for me. More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.”
Like any supportive boyfriend, Stenhouse said he was proud of the way Patrick has handled the media glare.
“I would not be happy if it was about me like that,” he said. “But I think she’s proved she can drive these race cars. She’s got a lot to learn. Heck, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Maybe they’ll figure out why the Pettys have been so petty toward Patrick.
“I don’t know what their problem is,” Stenhouse said. “But, hey, they have opinions and they like to talk.”
Patrick drew national headlines to NASCAR in her Daytona Cup debut last season when she became the first woman to win the pole and raced up front for much of “The Great American Race.” She led five laps and finished eighth.
She never came close to duplicating that Daytona success the rest of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing. Daytona marked Patrick’s best finish during a rough rookie year in which she averaged a 26th-place finish. Patrick was 27th in the final Sprint Cup standings.
Her learning curve figures to be steep one. Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Patrick would need at least five years to really get a feel for handling a stock car. Even Patrick, who had one win in her IndyCar career, knows she has plenty to learn. She’s winless with one top-10 in 46 career Cup starts and had only one top-five in 60 career Nationwide starts. She’ll run the Nationwide race at Daytona the night before the 500.
“Stock cars are not my background,” she said. “I’ve done two full years. One in Nationwide. One in Cup. I still feel like I’m figuring stock cars out, and will for a long time.”
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, respected Petty’s stance on Patrick.
“But I think it’s a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my name behind that comment. So I think I would probably give a little more time and see how that one plays out because there are races where I think she can win.”
Like Daytona. Or Talladega. Restrictor plate races where just about anything can happen and often lead to unlikely winners.
But at any other track?
“I haven’t seen any indications that would make me thing anything different than that,” Keselowski said.
Enough about The King, let’s get back to the boyfriend.
“That’s so much more fun,” Patrick said. “I haven’t really done anything on the race track. What would you ask me if there was no fun things like there are today?”