Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America)
Millions of people who have little interest in auto racing will have a rooting interest in Sunday's Daytona 500 simply because of the primal dynamic of men vs. women
Danica Patrick will race from the pole position at Sunday's Daytona 500. No woman has ever done that in the 54-year history of NASCAR's signature race. It doesn't mean she'll win. Odds makers think half the field of 42 men competing with her has a better chance than she does.
But imagine, for a moment, that she does win. That would be the sports story of the young year, and perhaps of the new millennium, because few things resonate more in cultures around the globe than the age-old tale of the battle of the sexes.
Men and women don't compete directly in most sports because of physiological differences, but auto racing is among the few where size and strength matter less, and where men and women match wits and grit without any compensating allowances. Golf allows shorter driving distances from the ladies' tees, but the driving distance at Daytona -- 500 miles, 200 laps -- is the same for either gender.
That means millions of people who have little interest in auto racing will have a rooting interest in Sunday's race on Fox (1 p.m. ET) simply because of the primal dynamic of men vs. women.
"Anyone who has ever been to middle school knows about the girls vs. the boys," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Gender is one of those categories, even in this enlightened age, that still" pushes all manner of cultural buttons.
Janet Guthrie, 74, the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500, knows all about that.
"For most of human history, broad shoulders and big muscles made the difference," Guthrie says. "It's only been the last 100 years or so where it isn't always the case. That's just the blink of an eyelash in human history -- and humans are still getting used to it."
One of the men Patrick will race against Sunday is her new boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a plot twist worthy of a 1940s screwball comedy: Think Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading barbed repartee over the roar of race cars.
Patrick, 30, won the pole position last Sunday by qualifying first with a lap of 196.434 mph. Stenhouse, 25, was 12th and Jeff Gordon, who came second, pointed out that at least he'd been the fastest man.
Patrick's parents, T.J. and Bev of Indianapolis, watched their daughter finish 17th in a 23-car field in a qualifying race Thursday -- it didn't change her pole position -- from a crow's nest above a giant painted image of their daughter on the side of a GoDaddy.com trailer in the paddock.
"I have friends who say now their daughters want to race," T.J. says. "Either they're mad at me or they're happy, one of the two."
Starting up front is an advantage that can dissipate because of that daunting distance of 500 miles. Just nine of Daytona's 54 winners have started from the pole, or 17%.
"I'll take those odds," Patrick said on ESPN this week. "I do think that it's going to be hard and I wouldn't consider myself a favorite to win. Although, a fast car, you never know what can happen."
Should Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet finish first, she'd suddenly be better known as a Daytona 500 winner than for her appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, wearing rather less than her neon-green racing suit, and her provocative Super Bowl commercials for Go Daddy, the Internet domain name company that sponsors her race car team.
"There would be, I hesitate to say, unprecedented media coverage, because it seems like all media coverage is unprecedented these days," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, "but the amount of coverage if she wins would transcend the racing category and she'd find herself on the Today show and Good Morning, America just as easily as Saturday Night Live and Letterman."
Patrick is a rookie in her first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR's top tier, and has just one win in 183 career starts in IndyCar and NASCAR, raising a question of whether it's reasonable to expect she can win the Great American Race.
"Anybody in the race can because (Daytona) is such a wild card," says Dale Jarrett, ESPN analyst and the last driver to win this race from the pole position, in 2000. "Last year (in a second-tier) Nationwide race, guy running 11th on the last lap gets to the checkered flag first. Anything can happen in this. You just have to put yourself in a position for that to happen."
Erik Brady and Nate Ryan