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She's back: Get ready for the return of Danica Patrick to NASCAR

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Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to the NASCAR stage ... Danica Patrick!

Patrick returns to race this weekend in New Hampshire in the Nationwide Series after a four-month absence from NASCAR. During that time, she's reestablished herself as an IndyCar presence, and is coming off three straight top-10 finishes.

However, although she's only been gone from the NASCAR scene a few months, Patrick returns to a very changed NASCAR. In Daytona, she was the story, a cause célèbre all by herself. Drive-by pundits proclaimed her the herald of a changing NASCAR, while longtime NASCAR fans and observers groused about her glory-hogging.

NASCAR thrives on storylines, and Patrick provided a readymade one — pretty girl coming to run with the good ol' boys. Thing is, Patrick ran acceptably but not spectacularly. And in the intervening months, we've had plenty of first-rate storylines, both fascinating (wing vs. spoiler, the rise of Denny Hamlin) and goofy (who wears the firesuit in the Harvick family?). We don't need Danicamania for story's sake; the season-long storylines are humming along as well as they ever have.

So then, we focus on her driving. And from that standpoint, Patrick has a high bar to clear. She ran decently enough in her initial races, finishing sixth in her only ARCA race and qualifying well in her three Nationwide races before running into collision trouble.

But as before, she'll be running against Sprint Cup-level drivers this weekend. She'll get dropped into a race where she's wheeling against Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards right from the start. Between them and the Nationwide drivers actually trying to make up ground on leader Brad Keselowski, Patrick would have an easier time trying to silence a stadium full of vuvuzelas all by herself.

Which brings up a point that a lot of people miss about Danica Patrick. Let's be honest here — what she's doing is pretty damn impressive. If she was a guy — Danny Patrick, say — she/he would have grudging respect, perhaps even affirmation and admiration. But because Patrick is a she — and she flaunts that she-ness in swimsuit layouts and GoDaddy commercials — she doesn't get taken as seriously as male drivers. Nobody's lighting, say, Clint Bowyer on fire for only having two wins in his entire Sprint Cup career, but Patrick gets held to a higher standard because of the image she presents.

Bottom line, this is someone who finished sixth in this year's Indy 500 and is making the near-impossible jump between series throughout the year. Maybe, just maybe, the Danica-bashers ought to step back a half-step and think for a second about how far she's come, not how far she has to go.

Welcome back to NASCAR, Danica. Here's hoping we all enjoy the experience.

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