Danica Patrick greets fans as she is introduced before the 2013 Daytona 500 on Sunday. / Jerry Lai, USA TODAY Sports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Even James Franco knew this was Danica Patrick's Daytona 500.
As the grand marshal for NASCAR's biggest race Sunday, the actor veered off script when it came time to recite racing's most famous words.
"Drivers - and Danica - start your engines!" he said.
Jimmie Johnson might have won the race, but years from now the 55th running of the Daytona 500 might be remembered more for Patrick winning the pole position and how she capitalized on the opportunity.
For seven consecutive days after she became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup Series pole, it was the Danica 500.
She did interviews with all three nightly news broadcasts (CBS, NBC, ABC) as well as CNN and Fox News - significantly more attention than any other NASCAR driver has gotten in recent memory.
The day after she won the pole, she was featured on the front of more than 100 newspapers.
Undoubtedly, all of the coverage drew viewers to Sunday's race who had never seen a NASCAR event. And Patrick gave those who tuned in a reason to stay until the finish.
Against most expectations, Patrick ran in the top 10 throughout the day and had a realistic shot to win the race. She was in third place heading into the final lap but finished eighth when the veteran drivers made better moves at the end.
By justifying the hype, Patrick was able to offset a mostly dull debut for NASCAR's Gen 6 cars. She did well enough that her new fans might even be curious enough to watch next week's race at Phoenix International Raceway.
"I'm jacked up, man!" said her crew chief, Tony Gibson. "That was awesome. We had a shot to win there, and that's all you can ask for. ... She impressed the heck out of me all day long."
Much like she did when running the Indianapolis 500, Patrick produced when the spotlight was at its brightest. She not only scored the highest finish for a female driver in the Daytona 500 but also became the 13th driver - male or female - to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.
In nine combined races between American auto racing's two biggest events, she has finished outside the top 10 twice.
Patrick thrives in a tornado of attention, feeding off the madness surrounding her.
She entered Daytona Speedweeks as the dominant topic of conversation thanks to the revelation she was dating fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who finished 12th Sunday). And when she won the pole position, the media coverage exploded into a story that extended well beyond NASCAR - and, in some cases, even sports.
The scrutiny only intensified Sunday morning at Daytona International Speedway. Pit road was jammed with more people than many observers could recall seeing - and dozens surrounded Patrick's car. The frenzy seemed to even exceed that of Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the height of his popularity.
As the pole-sitter, it took Patrick a long time to get from the prerace introductions to her spot on the grid. By the time she finally arrived, the national anthem was already playing.
In the midst of all the fuss - of the four-deep throng pushing closer to get a picture of racing's most-talked-about driver, of the cameras and fans and enough people to make some athletes snap - Patrick put in her earbuds, covered her hair with a fire-retardant sock and climbed in the car.
"I feel like when there are pressure situations, tensions are high, I don't get too flustered and I seem to be OK with them," she said later.
That was obvious, even on the track. She looked calm while leading the pack - becoming the first woman to lead laps at Daytona under green - and stayed patient while other contenders dropped out.
Patrick ran with some of the sport's best drivers and earned their respect. Earnhardt and Mark Martin had praise for her afterward.
"She did an incredible job today, as well as an incredible job a number of times last year," Martin said. "There will be more of that to come."
The boom times aren't likely to last, though. Racing at Daytona requires an entirely different skill set than what is required at tracks such as Phoenix, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway - the next three stops in the series.
Patrick is expected to struggle while she gains experience, and she knows it.
In that sense, the fans who tuned in for the first time Sunday to watch her race might be disappointed if they carry high hopes for Patrick this season.
"I think that would be unwise to sort of start telling myself that top 10 is where we need to be every week," she said. "I think that's setting up (for) failure."
But those potential struggles won't be remembered in the same way as Sunday. After all, when it was time to perform on NASCAR's biggest stage, Patrick did.
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