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Keeping Pace

Sat., June 13, 2009, noon

A Fish Story

Take a look at Cathy Elliott's latest column courtesy of NASCAR

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

I was standing on a muddy riverbank early one morning recently, talking to a couple of guys who had spent the previous night with their feet sticking out of their car windows and their fishing poles sticking out of the water. They were in hot pursuit of that rare delicacy, the South Carolina catfish. A bucket full of those babies is the definition of a good day in the Palmetto State.

We were chatting about this and that when it dawned on me that it was Saturday morning.

“Hey, I missed qualifying yesterday,” I said. “Who’s got the pole at Pocono?”

They didn’t know, although their hopes were running much higher than the catfish count that the man with the number one starting position would be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  No big shocker there.

I prattled on about how I hoped it was Tony Stewart and that I really wanted him to finally win that first points race, and wasn’t it cool that he was leading the driver standings?

They gave me the look I so often see when having conversations about sports with guys. It’s equal parts amusement and condescension, with a dash of cockiness thrown in for good measure.

“Kurt and Jimmie are tied for the lead,” one said.

I told them I thought Johnson and Busch were third and fourth at the time, with Stewart and Jeff Gordon at the top. “Trust me on this one,” I said.

They replied that they weren’t sure they could put much racing faith in a strange know-it-all girl, especially at 8 in the morning.

That remark chapped me more than a little bit (and for the record, it was 9:15), but it also got me to thinking about something. If these guys couldn’t believe a woman might actually know something about NASCAR, how might they respond to the idea of a competitive female driver on the track, mixing it up with the likes of Greg Biffle and Mark Martin every weekend?

Because it could happen. After a few years of hearing Danica Patrick claiming to have little or no interest in moving from open-wheel racing to NASCAR, suddenly she seems to have flipped her internal radio to a new station, and this one’s playing a different tune.

“I’m very flattered everyone is curious,” Patrick said in a recent interview. “It’s interesting to me as well. Do I stay where I am? Do I try to change? It’s all about evaluating options, and I think that’s something any good business person does.”

I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I am sure I didn’t read the word “no” in there anywhere.

I understand that many people will dismiss the feasibility of this idea immediately. They’ll say she isn’t ready. She’ll say she isn’t even the best driver in the series she races in right now.

They’ll bring up Patrick’s two appearances in the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issue, as if she can’t be taken seriously because she refuses to ignore the fact that she is pretty. They will point out that no NASCAR driver has ever done anything like that.

Really? A particular "ESPN: The Magazine" cover featuring Carl Edwards comes to mind. One of my friends has it framed on her wall. Do great looks diminish the value of great talent? Of course not.

Realistically, I admit it isn’t easy to successfully cross that line between Indy cars and stock cars. Just ask the likes of former Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, who couldn’t quite seem to find his rhythm in the NASCAR world.

Sam Hornish Jr. is having a nice season, though, and Juan Pablo Montoya is improving so much each week that no one even cringes anymore when they draw his name in the race pool. He is now considered a legitimate contender.

Patrick has to be taken seriously as a driver. She was the Indy car series Rookie of the Year in 2005 and became the first woman in history to win a race in that series in 2008. She finished third in this year’s Indianapolis 500. She can drive.

Patrick reminds me of Tiger Woods, in a way. Not because of dominating performances, since she hasn’t achieved that level of success yet, but because regardless of who your favorite driver is or who you want to win, you always know where she is on the track.

Plus, I don’t think sponsorship in NASCAR would be a problem. I’ll bet is already trying to figure out some way to work the phrase “Danica does Daytona” into their 2010 marketing campaign. Just in case.

Danica Patrick is interesting, and in good equipment with a patient team, it would be interesting to see what she could do in a stock car. Folks who have never seen a NASCAR race would undoubtedly check it out, and a lot of them would realize they liked it, and would stick around, even if Patrick ultimately didn’t.

If she wants to try, and NASCAR is willing to let her, then I say go for it.

I see no losers here. In fact, if NASCAR manages to hook Danica Patrick, no bucket will be required. This one fresh fish will be the catch of the year.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.