Danica Patrick - Where the road warrior meets the runway model

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Had the telephone rung in her family’s Roscoe, Ill., house 20 years ago, Danica Patrick might not be racing in her first Daytona 500 today.Patrick’s father, T.J., worked long days at a glass company, Danica says, and didn’t have much time to spend with her, her mother Bev and her younger sister, Brooke.

“We didn’t have a big relationship with our dad because he was always at work,” Patrick says. “Dad sacrificed so Mom could be home.

“We were looking to do something on the weekends together as a family.”

On the list: Go-karts and a pontoon boat.

“We were looking for something to do, float down the river or race around the tracks,” Patrick says. “Well, the float down the river guy didn’t call back.”

So here is Danica Patrick, 29, a Sprint Cup rookie raised on open-wheel racing and a swimsuit model with tremendous appeal.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be the most popular driver in NASCAR, but Patrick, who drives a Nationwide Series car for Dale Jr., has appeared in more Super Bowl commercials (10) than any other celebrity.

Today marks the official start of Patrick’s Sprint Cup career. After two years of racing part time in NASCAR’s Nationwide series, Patrick will run 10 Sprint Cup races this year with the goal of being full time on the circuit next year. She is the third woman to race in the Daytona 500 (Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson preceded her), but she’s already arguably the most recognizable face in a sport in which she’s never officially competed.

To some racing fans, Patrick’s arrival is irritating, based on a perception she doesn’t belong in the sport because she didn’t grow up in it and, perhaps, because she’s female. To others, she’s the perfect package of style, speed and sexiness in a sport that has never been known for its diversity.

Sitting in the Florida sunshine Friday morning, less than 24 hours after a 180-mph impact with a safety barrier and a few hours before she would win the pole for Saturday’s Nationwide series race, Patrick considered the phone call that never came.

“Things would have been different,” she says.

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