- Associated Press - Monday, February 25, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Enough with the snarky comments about Danica Patrick.

Sure, she gets more attention than her accomplishments warrant because she’s a pretty face competing in a male-dominated sport. Who knows if she’ll ever be a series champion because, quite frankly, it’s a rare breed that climbs to the top of any sport. Maybe she’s destined to be a middle-of-the-pack racer her entire career, someone who can be counted on for solid results and an occasional win.

But, you know what?

She deserves to be here.

That was evident for 199 laps at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, when she started from the pole, led a total of five laps and ran near the front for most of “The Great American Race.”

“At these speeds, she’s very comfortable,” five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “She held a great wheel. She was smooth and predictable. She was able to take advantage of the runs when she had them.”

Then, the guy who had just won the sport’s biggest race for the second time doled out the ultimate compliment.

“She was just a car on the track,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think about it being Danica. She was just another car on the track that was fast.”

Patrick finally looked like a NASCAR Cup rookie on her last trip around the 2 1/2-mile oval. Suddenly, she was timid and unsure of herself. Running third when the white flag waved, she never gave herself a chance to challenge the two guys in front of her, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, she appeared to be going in reverse, hung out going down the backstretch as five cars zoomed past her.

She came across the line in eighth, a bit of a letdown to be sure. Surely, the people who tuned in only because of Danicamania were disappointed she didn’t make a more aggressive run for the win.

Patience, everyone. This is a driver who cut her teeth racing sleek, open-wheel cars. She hasn’t figured out how to win in one of these bulky stock cars.

“I know I’ll be better next time,” Patrick vowed.

She certainly knows how the game is played off the track, doing numerous interviews and promotional appearances after becoming the first woman to win a Daytona 500 pole. But, once the guy from the Zac Brown Band had finished singing the national anthem, it was time to go racing. She put in her ear plugs and showed the single-minded determination that impresses her rivals.

“If you want a picture with my back to you, that’s fine,” Patrick said coldly. “But I’m getting in the car because it’s time to go to work.”

Shortly after the green flag came out _ displayed by none other than retired NFL star Ray Lewis _ Patrick was quickly passed by the other car on the front row, driven by Jeff Gordon. But, near the midway point of the race, she came out of the pits in second and sped past Michael Waltrip for the lead _ the first woman ever to lead a Cup race under full-speed conditions (Janet Guthrie, the pioneer for women racers like Patrick, led a few laps under yellow in the 1970s).

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