DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick is 29 years old, rich, famous and in command of everything around her, wonderfully engulfed in a state of American celebrity where an endless stream of positivity and money and ease are laid out in front of her.
Nearly all of the stars of questionable value churned out these days by the Hollywood machinery would kill for her reality: the photogenic female racer.
There are just a few potential pratfalls and, daringly, Patrick seems to court nearly every last one of them. She can't help it. Her husband, Paul Hospenthal, describes her as "All In," as in completely dedicated on everything she does. And then all in on the next task without a thought to the last.
No one else on those Hot 100 lists would be willing to walk in front of hordes of cameras without makeup or any discernible hair style the way she does at the track. No one else who serves as a role model to kids, particularly with a you-go-girl attitude, would go star in wildly suggestive GoDaddy commercials.
And then there is this: Patrick, curled up in a seat in her posh motor coach parked on the infield of Daytona International Speedway, preparing for Sunday's shot at the Daytona 500, where a lack of experience driving a stock car is far more likely to result in embarrassment and frustration than victory.
"I know I'm starting over again with the [Sprint] Cup and I really don't know what to expect," Patrick said. And while she wants, desperately, to win events this year, including Daytona, "the first goal is to finish the races and just see."
For years, Anna Kournikova was one of the world's 10 best female tennis players. While that would be enough to be celebrated if you were a perennial all-star in football or basketball – no shame in not being LeBron – Kournikova's elite athletic skills were marginalized into a punch line that brought a portion of her empire down around her. She never won a tournament. That's what everyone says. It'll probably be in the first sentence of her obituary, and it caused some of the public to turn on her, as if they were marketed a lie.
"It's what happens when your popularity exceeds your expected performance level to deserve it," Patrick said. "You're [supposed to] deserve it for one reason and you get it for other reasons."
One of Patrick's sponsors hails her as "America's most famous NASCAR driver," which is undeniably true even if Sunday will be her first race in the top-level Sprint Cup series.
Here, on the outside, lies the risk, the incongruity of all that Patrick is trying to be, the career path that leaves many wondering exactly what she is trying to prove. Is it just for the money that NASCAR can (and her native open-wheel racing can't) provide?
The risk/reward is backward, however.
"America's most famous NASCAR driver" could finish last in the Great American Race. She could cause a wreck that takes out various favorites and turns her into a goat. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and the rest could outclass her (the way they do almost every rookie), all in front of the largest audience to ever watch her drive.
Patrick shrugs at all of that. All In is all in.
It wasn't her idea for the popularity of open-wheel racing to collapse. When she was a go-kart phenomenon in little Roscoe, Ill., the dream was to win the Indy 500. At 16 she moved to England, leaving behind family, friends, high school and everything to attack that goal.
Now she's got a new one.
She could still pursue that dream, stay in her comfort zone, perhaps even take the checkers, especially as the talent keeps draining away from Indy cars over here. Juan Pablo Montoya. Sam Hornish. Those guys won the Indy 500 and then abandoned it for NASCAR, too, only to find a tough learning curve.
All In is all in, though. Why would Patrick sit around on some second-tier circuit? She got into this to try to be the best against the best. It's like when they offer her a sweet television commercial. "What's a reason not to?" she asked.
So in mid-career she is reinventing herself, risking pretty much everything in racing to become a stock car driver. Two years of part-time work and she's full-time now, ready or not, pedal to the floor.
She won a single race in open wheel, a 2008 victory in Japan few saw live on television that, it turns out, did little to quell the notion with some critics that she wasn't a truly legitimate racer.
"People said it was about fuel strategy and it was an ugly win," she said.
But she just doesn't care. Really. She'll say it over and over and over. She has lots of fans and wants to win for them, to give them a great day, like when the Chicago Bears win for her. Everyone else is everyone else. Even in a bottom-line sport in which there's always only one winner and a lot more losers, some will never be satisfied. Some will never acknowledge her dedication.
"I'll never do enough for them," she said. "Maybe they'll say it's because I'm a girl and I got a good car and if someone else had gotten that car they'd have done even better.
"I want to win for the people that are already my fans and cheer for me every weekend than for the [expletives] who don't have anything nice to say about me."
She doesn't fear an Anna Kournikova label. If she did, she wouldn't be here, taking caution and throwing it to the wind in a long-odds attempt to win the Daytona 500.
It's all gotten backward anyway. Entering Daytona isn't part of some desperate hunt for money and attention. She'll never spend what she's already made, let alone what she will. If anything, failure could hurt future earnings.
And fame? Attention? Notoriety? She's been on more Super Bowl broadcasts than Tom Brady. She's turned down exponentially more commercial deals and magazine covers than she's accepted.
"They ask me to do different things I'm not comfortable with," she said.
Patrick has these spheres of life that she moves through freely and can't quite understand why others don't accept it. A red carpet is a red carpet. Pit road is pit road. She doesn't get her hair blown out when she's at the track. What, the other drivers don't do commercials?
"Why am I there?" she asked, rhetorically. "Some things I do I am there to look pretty and lend my name to it. And other things I do I am there to drive a race car. I'm not there to look pretty necessarily … This is my racing world. The [other stuff] doesn't really mingle with this world."
She's built her entire life for this. Sacrificed plenty for this. Decades of driving, of pushing forward, of new challenges, of unexpected turns that led her to the most competitive and hyped race of her life.
It's the exact opposite of safe and packaged and pretend, of the Kardashian-written rulebook of turning nothing into millions. It's the exact opposite of someone trying to con America. She may not win. She may never win a race in the Sprint Cup Series. She may fail so spectacularly her critics will crow with delight.
If you can't see the victory in the attempt, in the pursuit, in someone so perfectly successful risking so much anyway, then what's Danica Patrick supposed to do to convince you about her commitment to this sport?
"I don't care," she said.
All In is all in.
"I really don't."
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