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Auto racing: Patrick deflects criticism

Associated Press

Danica Patrick has a two-year-old photo of her in the car at Daytona, on the receiving end of two thumbs up from Richard Petty.

“It’s a back shot of his butt sticking out,” Patrick said, smiling as she pointed at the photo.

It had been the extent of the interaction between the pair – just a playful sign of encouragement from the Hall of Famer to one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers after she won the pole at the 2012 Nationwide Series race at Daytona.

Patrick spent most of Thursday’s appearance at the Daytona 500 media day brushing off criticism from The King when he said the only way she could win a Sprint Cup race was “if everybody else stayed home.”

She refused to fire back at Petty, a seven-time champion, politely stating that he was entitled to his opinion. Patrick handled the comments much in the same way she dismissed Kyle Petty’s remarks last year that “she’s not a race-car driver.”

Petty gave NASCAR plenty to chew on last week when he said Patrick only gets attention because she’s a woman, but went on to say that the publicity is good for NASCAR.

“If she’d have been a male, nobody would ever know if she’d showed up at a racetrack,” Petty said. “This is a female deal that’s driving her. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s good PR for me. More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.”

Patrick drew national headlines to NASCAR in her Daytona Cup debut last season when she became the first woman to win the pole and raced up front for much of “The Great American Race.” She led five laps and finished eighth.

She never came close to duplicating that Daytona success the rest of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing. Daytona marked Patrick’s best finish during a rough rookie year in which she averaged a 26th-place finish. Patrick was 27th in the final Sprint Cup standings.

Her learning curve figures to be steep one. Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Patrick would need at least five years to really get a feel for handling a stock car. Even Patrick, who had one win in her IndyCar career, knows she has plenty to learn. She’s winless with one top-10 finish in 46 career Cup starts with only one top-five in 60 Nationwide starts. She’ll run the Nationwide race at Daytona the night before the 500.

Like Daytona, or Talladega, restrictor-plate races are where just about anything can happen, leading to unlikely winners.

Gordon wishes to retire with a championship

Jeff Gordon is prepared to retire if he can win a fifth NASCAR championship.

The 42-year-old Gordon won championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 when NASCAR’s top series ran under the Winston Cup banner. But he wants to win a Sprint Cup championship.

Speaking at the Daytona 500 media day, Gordon says he’s put in 20-plus great years and he still loves racing. With a family at home, a fifth title could convince him to call it quits.

“That would be all the reasons I need to say, this is it. I’m done,” Gordon said during an interview. “Go out on a high note.”

Stewart set to return to racing after broken leg

Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart is scheduled to make his return to the race track today for the first time since breaking his right leg in in a sprint car crash last August.

Stewart, who says his leg is only 65 percent healed after undergoing three surgeries, gets two practice sessions today totaling 105 minutes at Daytona International Speedway with his first race Saturday in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.

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