February has been Danica Patrick's career in a nutshell.
The month started with the revelation that Patrick and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. are dating, leading to more off-the-track news for the woman who has already received plenty of publicity for her Go Daddy ads and magazine photo shoots.
Will this be a distraction for the two racers? Will they approach one another differently on the track? Is this a good thing or bad thing for the sport?
Yes—the questions became annoying quickly.
This is one side of Patrick, the sex symbol, the celebrity off the track. This is the side that her critics lament, and the men too simple-minded to deal with a woman competing in NASCAR chide.
Never mind that there are plenty of male sex symbols in sports—think Tom Brady and David Beckham.
No, somehow Patrick's celebrity and sex appeal lessens her reputation and cheapens her accomplishments in many eyes.
It's a double standard, of course, but that's one of the obstacles all female athletes face.
It's a shame, but for now it's a reality.
Then Patrick won the pole at this year's Daytona 500, becoming the first woman in the history of the sport to do so.
This is the other side of Patrick, the trailblazer for women in racing, a true role model for female athletes everywhere.
This is the only woman in history to ever win an IndyCar race. This is the woman who finished fourth at the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 and third in 2009. These are not small achievements, not by a long shot.
And now the gaze of the entire racing world is once again upon her.
How will she do starting the race on the pole? Can she crack the top 10, or even top five or even win the race?
Can she grasp this opportunity to earn a lot of respect in her sport, or will the opportunity pass her by?
Patrick doesn't have to win this race to take advantage of the spotlight, but she does have to post a solid showing. She does need to be competitive throughout the entire race, and she does need to prove she can hang with the big boys on NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
She deserves to be taken seriously as a racer, but there are some folks who currently refuse to do so.
Might that change if she posts a top-10 finish at Daytona? Might that change if she wins a race this year or posts several strong finishes in 2013?
Whether she wants to or not, Patrick is racing for more than just herself on Sunday. She's racing for young women who dream of someday becoming racers. She's racing for female athletes everywhere, and she's racing to remind her detractors that she's far more than just a pretty face.
She always has been.
This is a big moment in Patrick's career. This is the Daytona 500, and she holds the pole. As a competitor, she'll say it's just another race, but it isn't.
It's potentially a career-defining moment.
In a sense, winning the pole already was, but Patrick has more to prove, and Sunday is a great time to do it.
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