Six races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Danica Patrick is holding her own among the best stock car racers in the world.
Following up her history-making open-wheeled racing career, which included being the first woman to lead and win a race in the IndyCar series, Patrick won the pole position for the Daytona 500, and finished eighth, two more firsts for racing women.
But then came a series of sub-par performances, finishing worse than 25th and failing to finish on the lead lap in four straight races, so the pressure was on this weekend at Martinsville. Patrick responded, rebounding from a dead-last start and an early-race scrape with Ken Schrader to post a 12th-place finish; climbing three spots to number 26 in the season standings, the middle of the pack.
Still, being the only woman on the grid, blazing trails in the male-dominated sport puts her in a position to not only be admired, but also an easy target for critics.
Danica Patrick is not your typical race car driver, set apart by much more than gender. The 31-year old racer/model/spokesperson seems as comfortable posing in a bikini on the hood of a car as she is in a fire suit behind the wheel. She is beautiful and articulate, and reaches out to her fans in multi-media forums, including her more than 880,000 Twitter followers.
She is also human. Recently divorced, she is dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., another rookie-of-the-year contender.
Patrick, like many women working in a "man's world" has to walk (and drive) a fine line. Her challenge is to earn respect from her fellow drivers. Some, like her Cup car owner Tony Stewart and Busch series boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. are already believers. Others, not so much.
After making contact with her at Martinsville, Ken Schrader made a comment over the radio about teaching Danica a lesson. Rather than retaliate, she seems content to learn from such experiences and move on to the next week of racing. (The veteran Schrader finished 32nd at Martinsville, 20 places behind Patrick.)
Danica has said many times that she's trying not to "lose friends" on the track, recognizing the importance of staying out of trouble and avoiding feuds with other drivers. At the same time, she needs to be assertive enough to compete, and that aggression in itself can garner respect from her peers.
She's a popular interview subject, but has to watch her words; whining will not be tolerated, even when she has a legitimate beef.
Patrick has to show poise and passion, wisdom, restraint and above all, no fear.
One day, we may speak of the popular Danica Patrick as nothing more or less than a star driver, or maybe even a champion, with no illusion to gender. In the meantime, she's working on a new meaning to the term "woman driver," one that, in NASCAR, commands respect.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at email@example.com.