SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Danica Patrick's girl-next-door smile captures your attention sitting high atop the front page of Thursday's Indianapolis Star newspaper, a larger photo of her dominates the front of the sport page too.
With Patrick set to debut in NASCAR's Brickyard 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Sunday, the newspaper story takes the Sprint Cup Series rookie's critics to task. A columnist asks why Patrick's first year in the Cup season should be judged more harshly than any of her male counterparts, who have fared similarly.
You see, for many years now, Indy has been Patrick's town.
It's where in 2004, the petite, wide-eyed, then-22-year old first met the national racing media. It wasn't the formal press conference with spotlights and 50 photographers her presence commands nowadays, but a low-key nonchalant introduction in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center by Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, who promised great things of the young Patrick and announced his intention to field a car for her in the next year's Indy 500.
That afternoon, most reporters only interrupted their writing to steal casual glances, few left their seats to ask questions or shake Patrick's hand figuring her to be a little more than a pretty face or marketing ploy. Fans didn't even know who she was walking through Gasoline Alley or down pit road.
But Patrick's Indy 500 debut the following May became one of the most historic days in auto racing when she became the first woman to lead the 500, contended for the win in the closing laps and finished what was then a best-ever fourth place.
The showing on one of racing's greatest stages immediately launched "Danica" into the one-name realm reserved for the most famous athletes like Tiger and Shaq. Those same reporters, who were reticent before, now clamor for interviews. As Indianapolis fans first learned; the bigger the stage, the greater Patrick seems to perform.
NASCAR fans quickly figured that out as well when Patrick won the pole position for stock car racing's Super Bowl, February's season-opening Daytona 500 and then ran up front all day finishing eighth -- the best ever for a woman in that race.
"I feel like when there's a lot on the line, a lot of people paying attention, a lot of interest in how I'm going to do, it seems to pull out the right emotion in me and produce a better result,'' Patrick said, contemplating the phenomena.
"It doesn't mean it will happen every time, but it does seem to happen. I can't explain it, I can only be grateful for it.''
As Patrick returns to Indianapolis this week to compete in the Brickyard 400 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the first time, the Cup rookie will have a huge and noticeable local fan base. Partly because she's a Midwesterner (she grew up in Illinois) and her family lives in Indy now and partly because the fans living in The Speedway's massive shadow are typically sophisticated and knowledgeable about the sport.
She won them over early and often, not because she was a racing anomaly but because she performed. It's an irony not lost on Patrick.
"That's part of what makes me happy being there,'' Patrick said. "People are excited to see me and root for me to do well. And it puts you in a better mood.
"I always just feel like there's a lot of hope when I come here. I don't feel the expectation levels lead to something that I have to do, or that there's some consequence if I don't, or there will be some negative result if I don't. I always just feel there's a lot of hope from people that want to see me do well. I want to deliver on that hope if I can.''
And it's helped make Patrick philosophic about the scrutiny she knows is inevitable.
"I think that more than anything you just learn how to deal with it, you learn how to interpret it,'' she said. "I don't think you ever get completely used to it, you just learn how to cope with it.
"Everyone wants approval. In general, we want people to think well of us. So I think being in a position where there are plenty of opinions of disapproval, you just learn how to deal with that.''
Success is one way. And when it comes to one of the most iconic venues in racing, Patrick is usually optimistic for her chances.
Ask any NASCAR, Formula One or IndyCar driver and they'll tell you, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the toughest circuits in the world. Each corner of the 2.5-mile speedway is different and with 200,000 fans crowding grandstands on the inside and outside of the track, it feels smaller than it is while negotiating laps at nearly 200 mph.
For Patrick, it's been a showcase. She has only one finish outside the top-10 in seven Indy 500 starts and her third place in 2009 is a historic mark for women.
Last year in her only stock car start here, she crashed out of the NASCAR Nationwide Series event early and never got a legitimate opportunity to race.
"But I feel comfortable there,'' Patrick said, pausing to pick her words. "I feel like I know the surface, the circuit. I enjoy going there and I think sometimes one of the most beneficial things on a weekend is to just be having a good attitude and being happy. And I'm always happy there.
"It's a special track. It's always going to be a favorite of mine. I don't think anything can take away from that no matter what happens.
"When I started racing I was picturing winning the Indy 500,'' Patrick said. "I always had this feeling I would win at Indy, but I never said it would be the Indy 500, so once I got in a stock car, I thought, maybe I had the car wrong.''
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