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Danica Patrick signs autographs for fans. (Associated Press)<br>

Danica Patrick signs autographs for fans. (Associated Press)

Gazzolo Column: Patrick has earned chance, now we'll see what she does with it

Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 6:56 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

You go, girl.

Or make that, you keep going, girl.

Old-time bootleggers must be rolling over in their graves this week. The sport they started with their liquor runs through the South is being taken over by a woman.

On the hallowed grounds of Daytona, another shot for the women’s movement was fired last Sunday when Danica Patrick jumped in a race car and circled the famous track faster than any man that day.

Her giant step for womankind earned Patrick the pole position for today’s Daytona 500. It more than made history, it became another historic moment in the ever-changing world of sports.

To make mattes worse for the good ol’ boys, joining Patrick on the front row will be one of the South’s least favorite drivers, the California kid, Jeff Gordon.

A woman and a Californian leading the field to the green flag in the Deep South. Man, have times changed.

Even if the South does rise again, at least we now know it will have a completely different feel and look about it.

The Daytona 500 can now officially be called the Great American Race.

Well, maybe not until an African-American driver sits on the first row, but let’s keep taking it one step at a time.

First there was the great invasion of drivers from the North and West, led by Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, two of the best drivers of all time. Both were from California. Both have dominated the circuit.

Now this, a woman.

Patrick won the pole in the most famous of NASCAR races despite being only a part-time driver in stock cars over recent seasons.

You have to wonder if one of her fellow racers will scream out the window “woman driver” if she happens to get in their way.

But if you look at her speeds and growing résumé of work, it is more likely they will get in her way.

One thing we know for sure about her, she isn’t afraid to ask directions.

Patrick has been willing to listen to advice from all on her climb up the NASCAR ladder. Now she finds herself starting on the top step.

It is a long way down, but she doesn’t seem like the type to look back.

Having met her a few years back when she was just starting this drive to stock car history, Patrick didn’t really talk much about winning one for the girls. It was more about winning races for herself and her team.

She was arrogant, cocky and walked with a swagger worthy of her opposing male drivers.

With them they called it a competitive edge. Patrick was labeled a, well you know what they call aggressive women.

Fact is, in order to treat her with the respect she has earned, we have to look past her gender and into the fire that burns inside. It is there where we will find out if she is ready for the spotlight and pressure she has raced to.

Some, of course, will argue that she hasn’t really earned this honor. They look to the advantages she has gotten for her looks, which opened the doors to both sponsors and advertisers.

No question she has been marketed by the best, but that just adds to the suspense leading up to the race.

Patrick will take all the pressure off the rest of the field. If she does good, she will be the talk of the race. If she does bad, she will be the talk of the race.

If she wrecks, well there won’t be enough hours in the day to hear all the talk about her.

I am not a motorhead. I don’t love NASCAR and follow it only because of my profession.

However, I do know a story when I see one and Patrick’s story is a big deal.

She has given young women another role model who has broken out of the box. That is never a bad thing.

It’s hard to say Patrick’s rise has much to do with Title IX, the law that evened the playing fields in high schools and colleges when it came to women’s sports.

Pro sports has no such ruling.

Yet she is a part of that generation, which has made it easier for women to compete in the sports world.

There are a lot of folks out there who don’t see this as a benefit, but, as the father of three girls, it is.

I don’t expect Patrick to win the race. Few who hold the pole spot do, but just making it this far will likely open the door for other women who have been told not to try to give it their best shots.

And in the end, that’s all anybody could really ask for.

Patrick has earned her chance, now we wait to see what she does with it.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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