Every time Danica Patrick flashed her flesh instead of winning a race, the specter of Anna Kournikova's overexposure played peek-a-boo with the race-car driver. This was never right.

Every time Patrick got more attention than her competitors, especially the men winning the races, the Michelle Wie hype machine came to mind. That wasn't right, either.

Patrick didn't receive special treatment just because she was gorgeous or just because she brought double-X chromosomes in a Y-centric business. From the beginning, Patrick held out the promise that she could do something only one other woman has ever accomplished. She could beat a field of men in a major sports event. (The other one? We'll get there in a bit.)

That possibility, plus the danger riding shotgun alongside it, took the sex appeal of Patrick's curves and pretty face into orbit. It kept her celebrity, despite some serious TMZ pedigree, in a different realm from the Kardashians'. And, for that matter, Kournikova's.

The Kournikova frenzy represented an old, old world, refusing to heave its last breath. The media distanced her from her female peers, superiors actually, via her Slavic beauty and pouty sexuality. Nothing about her tennis game set her apart. She never won a WTA event. Elevating her above champions comforted anyone who wanted to keep believing that women competed primarily for male attention.

Patrick also struggled for wins (though not as futilely as Kournikova), and her looks set her apart. But they didn't distance her from female peers. She has virtually none.

She competes almost exclusively against men because no other option exists. She can't race one week with the guys to lift her profile, and then return to the comfort of the LPGA or WNBA or WTA.  When she entered her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005, Patrick hadn't honed her skills to a dominant edge by crushing members of her own sex race after race. She didn't displace a man who would then be segregated out of a women's event. She didn't hit off the front tees or play best-of-three-set matches instead of best-of-five. 

She had to compete with the men the whole time, in IndyCar races and now in NASCAR. This is genuine competition, not a stunt.

There has been griping. (See Robby Gordon at the 2005 Indy 500, complaining that her lower body weight gave her an unfair advantage.) There has been jealousy. There has been, as all too expected, Rush Limbaugh.

"What do you expect from a woman driver?'' he said after Patrick said she supported making contraceptives available in all employer health plans. 

How about that she'll pose with your daughter after claiming the pole position for the Daytona 500?

Jeff Gordon's request for his daughter, Ella, layered valuable sentiment over the legitimacy Patrick gained on Sunday by winning the pole. There was no better signal of acceptance and respect, except perhaps Gordon's comment about being the runner-up: "I can say I was the fastest guy today.''

Then again, Gordon has always been the sport's choirboy. He would be expected to behave with respect for Patrick and the 21st century.

But a lot of other NASCAR drivers, past and present, got on board this bandwagon. They know their sport needs a jolt like this. Even Richard Petty bought in, kind of. Back in 1970s, the NASCAR legend did not welcome Janet Guthrie, the first woman in the Daytona 500.

"He would be quoted as saying of me: 'She's no lady. If she was, she'd be at home,' '' Guthrie wrote in her 2005 autobiography, "A Life at Full Throttle.'' "'There's a lot of differences in being a lady and being a woman.'"

As qualifying began last weekend, Petty snorted about the attention given to Patrick's romance with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. "'Peyton Place' and the racetrack. I keep them separated," he told an ESPN reporter, with a reference that required carbon-dating.

The soap opera "Peyton Place'' went off the air in 1969, 13 years before Patrick's birth.

But Petty has always understood ratings and publicity. "She can bring a lot of attention and hopefully we can all gain some new people watching,'' the codger said. "We have a big stage to play on next week, and this helps set it all up.''

Horse racing finds itself in a similar position, in need of attention and one of the very few sports that minimizes the physiological differences between men and women, allowing for genuine competition between them at the highest level. Julie Krone won a Triple Crown race in 1993, taking the Belmont aboard Colonial Affair.

But Patrick is different, a watershed and a lightning rod all at once. Her provocative poses in FHM and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, plus her incendiary Super Bowl ads for Go Daddy.com, often made it seem as if she cared more about marketing herself than winning races.    

But there was always a vein of humor, a hint of her getting the last laugh, running through every appearance. A year ago, in a Fox411 interview, she objected to being called "a sex symbol,'' a ridiculous comment on the face of it. She had played that card, and was trying to bluff after the fact.

She made a point, though: "People don't know how to describe women in a pretty way. Do you call Blake Griffin a sex symbol because he was on the cover of Men's Health with his shirt off?''

One has to wonder where Patrick would be today if she had the same driving skills but less pulchritude. Auto racing requires opportunity, the embrace of team sponsors. Her critics will contend that Patrick has been given extraordinary support, a great crew and equipment, largely because of her potential effect on ratings. All drivers compete for these resources, and the scales routinely tip in favor of those with greater personal appeal.

In the end, the men might have to complain that they can't be sex symbols the way she can. We'll look forward to that. In the meantime, we can look back to a commercial that, amid even the worst GoDaddy schlock, framed Patrick's place in the public domain perfectly.

Pulled over for speeding, she starts to open her shirt and prepare to flirt her way out of ticket. The officer arrives at the window, face covered by sunglasses or a visor, and looks down at this display. The officer's face is then revealed. It's a woman.