Auto racing: Patrick puts girl power in Great American Race

Danica Patrick grabbed a slice of history with her Daytona 500 pole, the first for a woman driver ratcheting up interest in "The Great American Race" that opens NASCAR's season on Sunday.

While early Patrick buzz at Daytona centered on the confirmation of her romantic relationship with rival driver Ricky Stenhouse jnr, all that changed with her pole grabbing qualifying run, with some pundits now predicting that if she can pull off a victory at Daytona it could mark a turning point for women in sports.

"I don't mind answering questions about the other stuff. But I get that it's not about racing. It's nice to change the tone of the questions because of what's going on on the track," Patrick said. "That is a really good sign and I like that."

The 30-year-old Patrick is no stranger to the spotlight. In five seasons on the Andretti team she became one of IndyCar's signature pilots and the first woman to win a race in the open-wheel series with her triumph at Japan's Twin Ring Motegi in 2008.

In 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 thanks to a refuel strategy and in 2009 she reached the Indy 500 podium with a third-place showing.

She then made the jump to the hugely popular NASCAR stock car racing, and last year competed in 10 races in NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup series.

Patrick knows that in a 500-mile race the advantage offered by pole position is slim at best.

"I do think that it's going to be hard and I wouldn't consider myself a favorite to win," Patrick said. "Although, a fast car, you never know what can happen."

NASCAR, a sport with roots in the American south, has gained an audience far beyond its stereotypically white, rural spectator and lured international racers such as former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia.

Top races such as the venerable Daytona 500 can draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, and the fan base is wooed by politicians courting the "NASCAR vote".

US presidential candidate Mitt Romney's difficulty in connecting with fans at one campaign trip to a race was widely interpreted as demonstrating that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Such a sport might not seem the best suited for a barrier-breaking battle of the sexes, but Danica-mania has dominated Daytona this year.

Rival drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards -- elite names in NASCAR -- all brought their daughters to meet Patrick as practise and qualifying got underway.

"Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person because 'To her, you are like some mythical creature that doesn't exist,'" Patrick said.

"Then after qualifying, Jimmie Johnson brought his little girl over. That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls that wanted to meet me."

Patrick credits her success in the male-dominated world of auto racing to the values instilled by her parents when she was young, and by her ability to land on quality teams.

"I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning," Patrick said.

Maybe so, but plenty of people will be tuning into the Daytona 500 this year specificially to see if the fastest girl can beat the fastest men, Robert Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University told USA Today.

"Anyone who has ever been to middle school knows about the girls vs. the boys," Thompson said.