Danica Patrick, polarizing queen of NASCAR, ready for full Cup season

DAYTONA BEACH -- Race fans generally feel two ways about Danica Patrick.

She is a cool, sexy alternative on the NASCAR circuit, a talented driver who has the potential to set herself apart from the good-old boy network of stars.

Or, she is an over-hyped and under-performing stock-car driver who should go back to open-wheel racing, or maybe just stick to making those suggestive Go Daddy commercials.

Truthfully, it's still impossible to figure out which label to stick on her permanently. But we're about to find out.

Patrick will run a full-time Sprint Cup schedule for Stewart-Haas Racing this season – a 36-race grind that will offer a truer measure of her driving skills than the 10-race smorgasbord in 2012. She also will opt out of the Indianapolis 500 again to focus on her NASCAR responsibilities.

The full-time NASCAR gig will amp up the noise in cyberspace and other places. Buckle up. It may get a bit rough at times.

"What they say doesn't create my finishes," Patrick said Thursday, while taking a break from the first day of testing at Daytona International Speedway. "I think it's great that people are talking about me. And it's great there's a conversation. But I really try not to read those things because at the end of the day they really don't matter."

Beyond the chatter, here are some facts:

Her highest finish in Cup racing was 17th last season, in her 10th and final Cup race, at Phoenix.

She finished 30th or worse four times in Cup runs.

She wrecked in all three races at Daytona last season, even though the scrapes were not her fault.

All in all, a rough go.

Which gives her critics plenty of ammunition to fire back, predicting she is in for more pain.

They can start with a simple question. Is she really ready for this?

Austin Dillon, for instance, will run only a handful of 2013 Cup races (about six), despite having a solid season on the Nationwide circuit, finishing third. Patrick finished 10th running a full-time Nationwide schedule, with no wins and no Top 5s.

"I think it's very difficult at this point in time to put sort of numbers to exactly where I should be finishing [in 2013]," she said. "I think you can look at a little bit of what happened last year as a bit of a baseline as to expectation levels and definitely areas that need work. But it's a new year; it's a new car and a lot of stuff changes so obviously I will be working full-time with Tony [Gibson, crew chief] and the guys now.

"I think everything changes a little bit, and you can never really know what to expect."

So let the speculation ride.

Polarizing Patrick continues to be the queen of NASCAR, for better or worse. She certainly is savvy in social media circles. Forgoing conventional breakups, she broke the news of her divorce on Facebook last November. That led to nearly 1,000 shares in just over 24 hours after the posting.

There will be more cyberspace chatter during Super Bowl week when Go Daddy premiers its racy ad, this year featuring Patrick and supermodel Bar Refaeli in a spot called "the Perfect Match." This will mark Danica's 12th commercial with Go Daddy, a web hosting company (who knew?).

"Is she getting more attention because she's female?" fellow Cup driver Jimmie Johnson asked last season. "Obviously, yes. If she were to win then that would only quadruple. When there's attention on the sport like that then it's good for everybody."

Click, click, click. Drool, drool, drool. Scream, scream, scream.

It's all part of the "gotcha" factor involving Danica Patrick.

But at some point this season, it will come down to a more pertinent theme.

We are about to find out if Danica can really race, race, race.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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