DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick has been an international sports star since the day in 2005 when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and came within a few laps of winning one of the world’s biggest sporting events.
Her pop culture celebrity has grown ever since.
This week she is again the biggest story as the 2012 NASCAR season begins with Sunday’s Daytona 500. After splitting the past two seasons between her fulltime ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series and a partial schedule in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Patrick is making the fulltime leap to NASCAR this year and will make her NASCAR Sprint Cup debut in NASCAR’s biggest race.
The media in Daytona has swarmed around the 5-foot, 1-inch, 100-pound Patrick since activities began with Media Day last week.
As ESPN.com writer Terry Blount said on Twitter: “In all my years of Media Days at Daytona, I’ve seen this many people around a driver. Danicamania.”
Opinions on Patrick are divided between those who are fans and those who definitely are not. Some say they resent the hype that seems to surround her.
Nevertheless, ESPN’s multimedia news and information platforms are giving the polarizing story what decision makers say is the due it deserves because of the level of interest, whether positive or otherwise.
“Danica moves the needle for us, it’s that simple,” said K. Lee Davis, senior motorsports editor for ESPN.com.
“She is the rare athlete that has broken out of the sports world to become a household name in our culture. And when she shows real personality — not just the usual sponsor plugs and general rundown of her race or her day — the interest goes through the roof.
“Ultimately, she will be judged on performance,” said Davis, who also will be providing Patrick stories for espnW.com.
When Patrick made her NASCAR debut in 2010 in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, ESPN2’s live telecast averaged 4.3 million viewers, the most-viewed cable telecast ever for NASCAR’s second series.
“I believe it’s more than a curiosity factor,” said Jim Bowdon, coordinating producer for ESPN2’s daily NASCAR Now program who also coordinates SportsCenter coverage of NASCAR.
“Danica has shown improvement since she came to NASCAR and she has a legitimate shot to win a Nationwide race this year. What she will do in Cup will is an unknown, but people will definitely be watching and we need to serve that interest.”
ESPN Mobile Web has reporter D’Arcy Maine in Daytona this week to document Patrick’s NASCAR Sprint Cup debut.
“We hold our relationship with NASCAR in the highest esteem and treat their biggest event with the respect it deserves,” said Anthony Mormile, ESPN vice president, mobile content.
“Danica’s involvement this year just ups the ante even more and we felt it essential to provide our 25 million monthly fans the opportunity for an inside look at this very special week.”
At noon ET on Saturday, ESPN will air the NASCAR Nationwide Series race from Daytona, which Patrick will be competing in for the third time.
“As we’ve said from the first time she competed in the Nationwide Series race here in 2010, the reality is that there are people who tune in to the telecast simply because of the interest in Danica,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, production.
“We want to serve that curiosity and interest because our belief is if they like what they see, and we provide them what they’re interested in, they may come back the next week. But there’s also a balance, and this is Daytona, the biggest race of the year, so we never lose sight of that.”