DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The buildup for Danica Patrick’s first Daytona 500 began in earnest at Thursday’s annual media day, where auto racing’s sweetheart was saddled with a full schedule of commitments.
Patrick was shuffled from interview to interview, answering questions and shooting promotions for her first full season in NASCAR. She couldn’t even find solitude in the bathroom: an autograph seeker followed Patrick inside and patiently waited for the driver’s signature.
Patrick will make her Sprint Cup Series debut in the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500. It’s the first of 10 races this year at NASCAR’s top level driving for three-time champion Tony Stewart.
She’s also racing for the championship in the second-tier Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.
Her defection from the IndyCar Series is complete, and Patrick will be the center of the spotlight for Speedweeks at Daytona. She’s fine with it, though, as seven years of running the Indianapolis 500 taught her how to handle intense attention.
“I think that if I had not experienced all the media crazy around this whole part of things it would have been somewhat overwhelming,” she said. “My whole (public relations) team knows how it works and how to organize everything so it’s done effectively and efficiently.
“But I feel good — let’s not forget I’ve been exposed to the Indy 500, which is one of the biggest races in the world, if not the biggest race in the world, and there’s lots of media around that, too, and lots of hype.”
NASCAR has been anxiously awaiting Patrick’s move to stock cars because, as one of the most recognized athletes in the world, she’ll bring attention to the series. Research shows she’s already increased interest:
— According to The Nielsen Company, ratings for the 2010 Nationwide Series opener at Daytona were up 33 percent with her in the race from the 2009 ratings.
— Overall, 11 of the 13 Nationwide races Patrick ran in 2010 had better ratings than the 2009 events. Average viewership for her 13 events was up 9 percent.
— Patrick’s merchandise sales last season ranked in the top 15 best-selling drivers at the NASCAR.com Superstore.
— Through last week, Patrick already ranked in the top 10 in merchandise sales in 2012.
— A survey last August of the NASCAR Fan Council showed that 80 percent of those polled agreed with the statement, “Danica Patrick is good for NASCAR.”
— Nielsen N-Score data through January showed that Patrick ranks in the top 5 of most recognized NASCAR drivers among the U.S. population.
“There’s so much interest with Danica coming over to NASCAR, I think it’s going to really broaden our fan base,” Lesa France Kennedy, the CEO of NASCAR sister company International Speedway Corp., said last month.
“When she shows up, it just has a different feel to it. She’s a real dynamic individual to start with and I think it’ll be interesting to see her compete on the track. There’s certainly a spotlight, without a doubt, but she seems to do well with that. She seems to do well under pressure.”
Patrick said she’s prepared for the workload leading into the Daytona 500, and with the increased schedule in NASCAR. The IndyCar season was just 18 races; the Nationwide schedule is 33 races and next year, when she moves full time to the Sprint Cup Series, she’ll have races on 38 weekends.
Dabbling in the Nationwide Series the past two years has prepared her for what to expect.
“Back a few years ago, I definitely was concerned with the work load that NASCAR schedules bring,” she said. “But the last two years, I went from doing a 16-18 race season to about 30, and now it’s going to be about 34 or 35 weekends, so it’s really only an extra month worth of weekends so it’s much more tolerable than jumping from Indy Car to NASCAR in one jump.
“I’m very good when I know what’s coming. When I get surprised and things getting added on the schedule is when I get frustrated because expectation levels are everything for me.
”But not only from my perspective am I more comfortable now, but from my assistant’s perspective and the help she gets from Junior Motorsports and Stewart-Hass, I think we all have a much better picture of how to do everything and how to keep it in line and how to help (the media) do your job.”