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Danica Patrick is now the face of women in sports, according to ESPN

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Fire up those keyboards, Danica Patrick haters, because ESPN's given you a whole new reason to get angry. Patrick is the cover model for the magazine's "Women In Sports" issue.

Granted, this isn't an endorsement of Patrick as a superstar; this is, after all, the magazine that made the curious decision to paint Michael Vick in whiteface, among other peculiar editorial choices. But it is a recognition that, in this world, success in your chosen profession runs hand in hand with your ability to bring in eyeballs and dollars. In the latter metric, Patrick has almost no equal in racing and few in sports as a whole.

It's a simple calculation, really. Patrick's detractors can scream all they want, but the quieter masses have, so far, spoken far louder with their numbers (Patrick was Yahoo!'s most-searched athlete last year) than with angry message-board postings. Yes, Patrick gets more notice finishing 31st than most drivers get for winning. The Miami Heat, Tiger Woods, Notre Dame ... they all continue to draw attention that far outweighs their actual in-competition performance now.

We're in the midst of a three-year experiment with Ms. Patrick (Introduction, Ramping Up, Sprint Cup). Yeah, she's getting shoved down everyone's throats because of all the money that's at stake and invested in her performance. Can she become a top-flight stock car driver? Sure. Could she fall short, riding around with the rest of the better-than-most-but-not-good-enough crew? Absolutely.

Patrick is a pioneer, but not in the way that, say, Shirley Muldowney or Janice Guthrie were. Patrick is pioneering a new model of female-athlete-as-brand, where style often trumps substance (sometimes by a large margin). There's plenty to dislike about that model, yes. But for the moment, it's the standard. At least until the next Danica comes along ... and starts winning.

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