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Patrick’s first top-10 came in her 15th career start. By comparison, IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. had no top-10s in 11 Nationwide starts before he went to Cup, and Dario Franchitti had no top-20s in four Nationwide starts before he moved up. Although there were skeptics as to how they would perform at NASCAR’s top level, neither Franchitti nor Hornish were accused of not deserving a Cup ride.

Then again, neither has ever attracted as much attention as Patrick.

She has done a remarkable job of building her brand, and with it comes a public interest that reaches far beyond the die-hard race fan. Her six top-10s in seven career Indianapolis 500 starts pumped life into that race and is proof enough that she can handle high speeds and race on ovals on the biggest of stages.

With each of those runs came more eyeballs, whether it’s to televised races, newspaper articles or Web hits, and when someone drives traffic that way, they will always get attention.

Maybe that’s unfair to the Justin Allgaiers of the world, the kind of drivers who fight and claw for a shot and consistently fall short of that one big break because of a lack of sponsorship. There’s always going to be that obscure driver who guts out a gritty career-best finish, only to be overshadowed by a juicer story.

But it’s the system that’s the problem, not Patrick. She played it perfectly, regardless of what she has or has not done on the race track.

On Sunday night, three days after making her NASCAR plans official and opening herself to a fresh round of attacks, she closed the week with a 21st-place run on the road course at Sonoma. Disappointed, Patrick quickly focused on the future, promising to return and do better _ next time as a NASCAR driver.

“It’s tough days like today that I am extra appreciative of my fans,” she posted on her Twitter page. “I will be back to redeem myself….but it will have a roof.”


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