Danica Patrick has received a great deal of attention after making news on and off the track (John Raoux/AP)

Danica Patrick has received a great deal of attention after making news on and off the track. (John Raoux/AP)

This weekend at the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick will start out in front. It’s the first time in Sprint Cup history that a female driver has won that honor. Brant James, who covers motor sports among other things for espnW and ESPN, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: For years the complaint against Danica Patrick has been that she’s a pretty woman whose sexy magazine spreads overshadow her accomplishments behind the wheel. I don’t know whether that’s been fair or not, but is this week’s poll enough to change that perception?

BJ: I don’t think it will — not entirely. I mean after all this is NASCAR’s biggest event, no doubt about it. If there will be mainstream eyes, casual observers watching NASCAR at any point this year it will be this weekend. But when you break it down from sort of the gear-head perspective of it, the racing at Daytona and its sister track Talladega is so completely different than everywhere else, the cars ride around in these massive packs, and it’s sort of a chess game where you have to find drafting partners and you can go from first to 30th with just one bobble or someone deciding they don’t work with you. You can’t take anything away, but even she admits that, you know, this kind of racing is about the great car and the great engine that your team gives you, and who’s willing to work with you during the race, which is why this type of racing gets so many odd, fluky winners, people who win there for the first time and some who never win again.

BL: For our listeners who are less familiar with auto racing, you get to start first because you qualify fastest, so that is an accomplishment already, right?

BJ: Absolutely, there’s no taking that away, but even that can be dissected, not to get too sciencey, because eventually your nose starts to bleed when you talk about this too much, but you like the track to be cool. The car sticks to the track and can go faster if it’s nice and cool. When it gets warmer, the track gets kind of slippery because all the goo that’s down there bubbles up.

BL: Sounds like science to me.

BJ: It’s a little science, but Danica qualified eighth out of the 50-some odd cars. She went early which was great for her — random draw, can’t fault her for that. She went out, she nailed it big time. It was no fluke. She didn’t cover her eyes and throw a dart and hit double-bull here. It was a good car, her team gave her a very good car, and she’s displayed an aptitude for this kind of racing from the moment she got into the sport. A lot of dominoes got in line, and she still had to take advantage of it, and she did.

BL: Danica Patrick has always gotten a lot of attention. This week she’s fielding questions about her historic poll position, her first full season in Sprint Cup, and her newly revealed romantic relationship with a fellow driver. How is she handling all the pressure?

BJ: If she is feeling pressure, she has a world-class poker face. I’ve been interviewing Danica for nearly 10 years, and she is as happy, as confident, and just as self-assured as I’ve ever seen her. I mean she’s very into her work, she wants to do well, but personally she seems to be in a very good spot. She announced a divorce from her husband of seven years in November, which was the first sort of offseason shockwave of Danica’s personal business, and then the news of the relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is contesting the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award with her this year, oddly enough. You think that they’re gonna turtle up about this because there’s a lot of uncomfortable stuff about it — conflicts of interest. But you know she walks into the media center at Daytona on media day and basically takes all questions on it, even the strange and creepy ones, you know, like, “Are you guys gonna take a walk on the beach tonight and Valentines gifts.” It was cringe worthy. Some of it was really cringe worthy. But maybe hopefully, hopefully that’s all over and all out there. But to summarize, she looks as happy as I’ve ever seen her. And her parents agree, her family says the same thing.

BL: We’ve been hearing non-stop news about Danica Patrick since she first came onto the Indy Car scene back in 2005. But this is first full season in NASCAR Sprint Cup which means, as you have said, that she’ll be eligible for rookie of the year honors. What do you think, is she a favorite?

BJ: A solid 50-50 chance I would say. I think you have to lean toward Ricky. I mean he’s a two-time winner of the Nationwide Series, which is the second-tier series, just below Sprint Cup. Really this is going to be another learning year for her. She’s come so far so fast with this and she’s to be credited for that, but I would think that it’s going to be Ricky.