- Danica Patrick holds the pole position when it comes to the impact she's left on the world of sports and NASCAR marketing.
- Patrick has carved out a new fan base by winning in a male-dominated sport.
- Experts say Patrick has dethroned the tennis world's Williams sisters as top female athlete in pro sports.
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — While only placing 8th in the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick still holds the pole position when it comes to her impact on the world of sports and NASCAR marketing, experts believe.
"What Danica's done carries through the entire sports world," Mike Bernacchi, a University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor, told Edmunds. "Her message is, 'Anything is possible.'"
By winning the pole position, the first time a woman has earned the top spot in a Sprint Cup race, "she's carved out a whole different fan base, an opportunity to grow the sport and on an even keel," Bernacchi points out.
It's not just the racing world that has its eyes on Patrick, said Robert White, director of motorsports studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He believes Patrick has the highest profile of any female in all of pro sports.
"If one of the Williams sisters wins Wimbledon, then they might reclaim that title, but for now, it is Danica Patrick and if you're a racing fan, that's pretty cool," he said.
The magnitude of her accomplishment is not lost on the American public, Bernacchi said. "It may never happen in hockey, baseball, basketball or football, but women can compete with the big boys in racing without any concessions, Danica's proved," he said. "It's a great opportunity for the sports world because the mold is now broken in."
The timing couldn't be better for NASCAR, said Jeff Nelson, director of analytics at Chicago's Navigate Research, which specializes in market research and sponsorship valuation in sports and entertainment.
"NASCAR for years was unstoppable as a marketing machine," particularly in the late 1990s," he said in an interview with Edmunds. "In the last five years, it's really leveled off, so Danica's historic pole position win is a real opportunity for them."
"The goal for NASCAR is for its races to be the top story on ESPN SportsCenter," said Nelson, a former sports correspondent for The Washington Post.
With the pole position and Patrick's headline-grabbing news last month that she's dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., NASCAR should be in heaven, Nelson believes. "NASCAR thrives on rivalries," he said.
Patrick's blazed a trail since 2005 when she was the first woman to lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500. She finished 4th and took top rookie honors of that race. In 2009, she finished 3rd in the 500. She jumped to NASCAR in 2010.
She's made a splash off the racing circuit as well, helping sponsors grow their name, most recently with a GoDaddy 2013 Super Bowl commercial that sports a supermodel kissing a nerd.
Bernacchi knew Patrick had created a cosmic shift in the sports world when he spotted the photo of fellow racer Jeff Gordon's 5-year-old daughter, Ella, with Patrick. Gordon told the press his daughter saw Patrick, who had just edged him out for the pole position, as a role model. She hadn't realized women could be racecar drivers until seeing Patrick's success.
"Any time someone is doing something groundbreaking as it relates to race or gender, it's going to get attention," Nelson said. "Danica has become even more of a high profile figure because she's one of those lightning rods who inspires a lot of debate. She's always trying to fight that (tennis player) Anna Kournikova stigma of not just being a pretty face, so her winning the pole is huge."
Patrick's pretty face, or how she's used it, might prevent her from a long stay at the top of the sports word, said Patricia Lee Yongue, associate professor of English, who specializes in women's studies and the history of motorsports at the University of Houston.
"Danica is going to be a hard sell because she also does a little cheesecake photography and that doesn't sit well with women's studies," Yongue told Edmunds. "It contributes to the whole notion that motorsports is aimed at the gear head who likes a beautiful car and a beautiful babe."
Furthermore, Yongue believes Patrick may be too much of a puzzle for the NASCAR folks. "NASCAR touts that it's a sport filled with family values, once suspending a driver for saying the word 'damn,' and with all of her swimsuit shots, well, that doesn't fly with their family values theme," she said.
"This will be interesting to see how it unfolds," she said.
Edmunds says: Danica Patrick is on the ride of her life, with implications that go far beyond the track.