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Originally published Friday, February 22, 2013 at 9:39 PM

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Patrick brings new eyes to NASCAR, Daytona 500

The big boys brought their little girls to see NASCAR's shining star. Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all took their daughters...

Sunday

Daytona 500, 10 a.m., Ch. 13

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The big boys brought their little girls to see NASCAR's shining star.

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all took their daughters to meet Danica Patrick this week at Daytona International Speedway.

It was the ultimate backstage pass.

Patrick dropped to one knee, wrapped her right arm around Ella Gordon's waist and posed for pictures as the 5-year-old flashed an endless grin in victory lane last week. Every day since, Patrick's crew has handed out dozens and dozens of lug nuts to little girls clamoring for souvenirs. Annie Edwards wore GoDaddy green shoes for the special occasion. Evie Johnson recognizes only two cars, her dad said — his and the green one.

"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."

Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona — and with a brand-new audience.

The first woman in history to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new eyeballs to Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. She'll lure in casual sports fans, women who don't know a muffler from a manifold and little girls in awe of the glamorous driver and her fast green car.

It's an ambassador role Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race in the world. But it's so much more now.

"You can only lead by example and I don't necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world. That's not what I am trying to say," Patrick said. "But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is."

And right now, she believes her potential is to win "The Great American Race."

Patrick starts first on Sunday, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday's practice and mixing it up with NASCAR's biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.

"Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely," Patrick said. "I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn't mean I don't have a chance to win."

Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he's got a winner for Sunday, saying, "She's got the talent."

Notes

Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, earned the pole for Saturday's Nationwide Series season opener.

Johnny Sauter won the NASCAR Truck Series season opener, his first victory at Daytona International Speedway.

Antron Brown raced to the qualifying lead in Top Fuel at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler.

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