With each Super Bowl ad and swimsuit spread, Danica Patrick displayed not just her assets, but her confidence.
She had become a star not because of her driving skill – she was a good driver in IRL, but she had never won an actual race. She was rich and famous because she was a woman driver. A good looking woman driver.
But with each embracing of what her looks could deliver off the track came another non-victory on it. So the comparison hung above her, the haunting taunt for any female athlete who actually believes they can be more than just eye candy.
Danica Patrick was the Anna Kournikova of racing. She looked good never winning.
Until Sunday in Japan, when she passed Helio Castroneves with three laps remaining and cruised to victory at the Indy Japan 300 due to the perfect execution of a perfect fuel efficiency strategy.
And with that, Patrick proved she was more than a pretty face.
"It's a long time coming," she said. "Finally. It's been a lot of years of built-up pressure and pressure I put on myself."
Patrick had burst onto the scene in 2005, finishing fourth in the Indianapolis 500 after leading late in the race. It was a head-turning performance for any rookie driver, let alone one who also turned heads for the way she looked in her fire suit. She immediately became one of the most popular drivers in the world, drawing in new fans to IRL who thought she could duplicate her off-track success with historic victories.
But the breakthrough didn't happen. Whether it was poor equipment or lack of experience or just bad luck, Patrick rarely reached the podium and never once seriously challenged for the checkered flag. The years went by and nothing changed.
But Patrick never wavered. To see her on race day is to see a woman that remained competitive and confident. Her most famous on-track incidents came when her temper bubbled over – a stomping session after a frustrating breakdown, a grab-the-arm-confrontation with a rival male driver.
Patrick may not have been winning but there was no denying how much she wanted to. This was not an idle pursuit.
If anything, her continued embracing of her feminine ways proved it. This year that included no less than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit appearance that proved the 26-year-old wasn't afraid of being compared to Kournikova because she remained certain that unlike Anna, she would win one day soon.
Patrick embraced the negative because she didn't believe it would last.
"No doubt, just time," she told ESPN after the race. "I always knew I could win. (It was) how much time is it really going to take and when am I going to catch the breaks and when is it going to be my time?"
The time turned out to be now, as the deck begins to align in her favor. In her 50th IRL race she competes for the circuit's best team, Andretti Green Racing. This season the competition has dropped a bit with top drivers such as Sam Hornish leaving for NASCAR. Her car is routinely among the fastest on the track.
The opportunity was there. Patrick took it.
The accomplishment shouldn't be overshadowed by the length of the pursuit. This isn't a woman winning a woman's competition. This is a woman winning a competition full of highly-paid, talented, professional men.
To win an IRL race takes brains, guts, tenacity, strategy and strength.
For a long time no one thought a woman could do all that better than men. For a long time no one thought Danica Patrick could either.
She never bought into either of that and spent every opportunity flaunting her womanhood. Then she went really fast to prove she was right all along.