By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For so long, Danica Patrick was just a pretty girl in a fast car surrounded by a crack marketing staff who parlayed a few golden moments on the track into worldwide fame.
Her sexy Super Bowl ads and the revealing magazine shoots outnumbered her actual career accomplishments. They still do, and she routinely takes Twitter broadsides from a fan base that has resented her since she first dabbled in NASCAR 3 years ago.
Patrick never flinched, and she’s not flinching now on the doorstep of the biggest moment of her NASCAR career.
She already has a major accomplishment to tuck in her belt: She is the first woman in history to win the pole at NASCAR’s top level. That it came at the Daytona 500, “The Great American Race,” is somehow fitting because it is Patrick. The face of auto racing to many casual fans is now going to be the face of NASCAR every day this week leading into Sunday’s season-opener.
It comes during a rebirth for the 30-year-old Patrick.
Something shifted last season, when she realized a happy ending wasn’t going to come in her seemingly picture-perfect life. All the effort and energy dedicated to maintaining Danicamania wasn’t making her happy.
So she made significant life changes, splitting from her 47-year-old husband after 7 years of marriage. In January came confirmation of what everyone in NASCAR already assumed – she was dating fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Patrick, so certain all those years she was a race car driver and had no interest in having children, is suddenly murky on motherhood.
“I don’t know. I always used to say no. Now, I don’t know. I’m in a whole new situation now,” she said. “I do know I wouldn’t compromise my career. I would not stop racing for that. If I did want to stop racing for that, then I would lose my passion for racing and it would be that point in time when I would want to stop racing.”
Patrick is suddenly an open book. She’s putting herself out there.
“People tell me I’ve changed. Maybe. I’m happy,” she said. “You get kind of giddy about it, almost. Ricky and I like talking about each other. But life is just simpler now. I feel like I don’t have to think as much. There was always an element of me that felt like I had to do the right thing all the time. Now I feel like I want to be me. I want to be relaxed, less calculated. My return on investment was not right, and I am done overthinking things.”