By Matt Crossman

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Danica Patrick climbs behind the wheel of a rental Kia and pulls into traffic. She doesn't drive fast so much as faster than is necessary given the circumstances. She gets just close enough to be too close to the car in front of her, and then inches closer still. There is too much traffic to really open this car up ... and not enough car that it would be worth opening up anyway. When she steps on the gas, it makes a noise like she stepped on a sick kitten.

I ride shotgun. Joe Crowley, her p.r. man from Stewart-Haas Racing, sits in back with Elizabeth Driscoll, the head of GoDaddy p.r. We're going to Yogurtology, a self-serve frozen yogurt place not far from GoDaddy headquarters.

I have shadowed Patrick for a day full of media and sponsor obligations. As it nears its end, she gets punchy. She compliments the GPS voice for sounding friendly, calls Crowley "Sir," and needles him for his taste in rental cars. He makes an unconvincing case that he didn't choose the car.

Scottsdale is Patrick's home turf, or one of her home turfs, as she grew up in Chicago and now spends a lot of time in Charlotte, too. She narrates as she drives. "Here on the left we have my bank, Morgan Stanley," she says. Holding the wheel with her left hand, she waves her right like a tour guide. "Scottsdale Quarters is over here. Restoration Hardware, a beautiful store for home goods, outdoor and indoor, plenty of lovely restaurants …"

Patrick parks at Yogurtology and asks me to leave my notebook in the Kia. Not because what happens at Yogurtology stays at Yogurtology, but because no notebook will mean less attention from other customers, which will give her a better chance to eat undisturbed. She is one of the most recognizable athletes in the country, which makes her racing career possible and curses it at the same time.

* * *

When Patrick, 31, first made news as a teenager, it was because she zipped around go-kart tracks in the Midwest, beating the boys. That made her different from every other prominent female athlete, because the rest of them competed against other women. She first became famous as a sex symbol and a race car driver and later became super-famous as a sex symbol, race car driver and star of GoDaddy's controversial Super Bowl ads.

I attended one of her GoDaddy commercial shoots four years ago, and the difference between the company's and Patrick's images then and now is striking. That commercial featured Patrick, wearing all leather, pulled over on the side of the road for speeding. The cop turns out to be a blonde woman who rips off her shirt and, well, you can guess the rest.

GoDaddy has abandoned that kind of marketing, opting to use Patrick and its commercials to explain what it does as a company. While Patrick says she doesn't regret any of the ads, she supports the new direction. She says it will be good for the company. It will be good for her driving career, too.

As her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career takes root, the sharp edges of Patrick's image have been sanded away. That aura of what'll-she-do-next? that once followed her has dissipated, like smoke wafting from spinning tires. Her clothes have been put on. Her notoriety has worn off. She is finally becoming what she always said she wanted to be all along: just a driver.

Patrick always insisted that she wants to be known for racing rather than for simply being Danica Patrick. Now that she'll get what she has long hoped for -- a chance to be judged on her driving merits -- how will she measure up?

With her first season as a Sprint Cup Series behind her, the clock is ticking on her attempt to prove that she belongs in the biggest racing circuit in the country. With a friend in Stewart-Haas Racing owner Tony Stewart and a steadfast ally in sponsor GoDaddy, Patrick will be given every opportunity to forge a lasting career. Whether she does so will be one of NASCAR's most closely watched stories in the next half decade.

She's used to that kind of attention.

* * *

Patrick walks into Yogurtology. She pours pumpkin spice frozen yogurt into a bowl, tops it with coconut, almonds and peanut butter and carries it to a table outside. A man at the next table eats with two little girls, maybe five years old. He double-takes when Patrick walks by. The girls barely look up from their frozen yogurt.

I have two daughters in that age range. They don't know football from baseball from basketball, but they know who Patrick is. The very first second they realize a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is on TV, they ask what place she is in. Their interest has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with: That's a girl doing what only boys do.

I tell Patrick this.

"When you tell stories like that, it makes me proud to be the reason for a point of conversation," she says. "I don't think it's necessarily because it's me, though maybe sometimes it is. I think it's more about trying to show your kids that you can do anything. You don't have to be like everybody else. You can be different. You can do anything you want to do. I'm just a reason for the conversation."

I ask if that feels like pressure, to know that little girls see her as a role model, and that parents are talking to their kids about her. She says no. She says she tries to focus on what made her a role model in the first place, and keep doing that. "It wasn't about feeling different or feeling like a girl that got me to this point," she says. "It was about trying to be great."

danica_patrick
Patrick in her car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. (Getty Images)

Trying to be great. No other modern American athlete's attempt to be great has been met with such wide reactions. Patrick is an American success story, overcoming long odds in a man's world to inspire young girls to believe that they can become whatever they want. Or she's a shameless opportunist, with little success to show for all the endless, breathless hype. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.

Patrick won the pole in the season-opening Daytona 500, led five laps and finished 8th in the race, a thunderclap start to her full-time Sprint Cup career. As impressive as that was, Daytona is about the car, not the driver. She is more proud of, and NASCAR insiders were more impressed by, her 12th-place finish at Martinsville, one of the most technically difficult tracks on the circuit. She saw the paper clip-shaped short track for the first time on a Friday and on that Sunday drove back to the front after initially falling two laps down.

Her average finish this season of 26.1 (out of 43 cars) falls in line with what history suggests she would do. According to NASCAR's stats department, of the 38 rookie of the year candidates from 2003 through 2012, 20 had worse average finishes. Recent rookies with open wheel backgrounds similar to Patrick's include Juan Pablo Montoya (with an average finish of 22.7 in 2007), Sam Hornish Jr. (29.6 in 2008) and Dario Franchitti (34.3 in 10 races in 2008).

Her rookie year was not an endless parade of wrecks, as some rookie seasons are. Newcomers often overdrive the corners trying to prove themselves and instead lose control of their cars (and sometimes their careers). Patrick never did that; critics said she didn't drive into corners hard enough.

Patrick says her greatest need for improvement is in qualifying. Her average starting position was 30.1. Only twice did she start better than 21st, and both of those were at Daytona. Starting that far back causes multiple problems. One, it puts her in the vicinity of other bad cars. Two, if she starts slow, she will get lapped quickly. And three, even if she starts off fast, she must pass a lot of cars to get to the front.

Another area she says she needs to improve on is asking for changes that make the car better. She diagnoses problems but struggles to identify precise solutions. A loose car can be loose for any number of reasons, and each reason has one solution. It's like a string of Christmas lights that goes out when one light goes out. It's easy to fix … once you figure out which light needs to replaced.

Crew chief Tony Gibson gives Patrick's first year at the Sprint Cup level a B-plus. She is far more critical, especially of the second half of the season. Starting with a crash on the first lap at Kansas, she went eight races without finishing on the lead lap, a streak that ended when she finished 20th in the season finale.

"Do I wish it went better?" Patrick says. "Yeah. Do I wish I understood more? Yeah. But it's a learning process. That's why they call it a process."

Rusty Wallace, a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and ESPN analyst, says Patrick has gotten better, albeit "at a very slow pace." He worries that she has stalled out. He says the key to her development is for Stewart-Haas Racing and GoDaddy to maintain funding for her until she gets comfortable in stock cars.

She wants to become a great NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver. Can she? Defining "great" as one of the top 5 drivers in the sport in any given season, the answer is almost certainly no. In seven years, she never became a great IndyCar driver. In one full season and two partial ones, she was not a great Nationwide Series driver. In the short- to medium-term, she likely won't have any realistic chance at making the postseason, as she struggled on the intermediate tracks that dominate the schedule.

Still, there is evidence that she can become a solid driver. She had a shot to win the Daytona 500 this year, so she'll likely be consistently strong at Daytona and Talladega. A win at one of those places is possible, as early as next season, depending on how willing other drivers are to work with her in the closing laps.

For now, and the foreseeable future, her team preaches baby steps. She ran in the top 20 sometimes this year. They want her to do so regularly next year and improve again the year after that. She might need several years till she gets comfortable in a stock car. Some open wheel converts never do.

"There's a lot more to learn than I thought," Patrick says of her transition to stock cars. She drove two part-time seasons and one full season in the second-tier Nationwide Series before entering the Sprint Cup Series full time at the start of 2013. "There's a lot more that goes into the team aspect of things than I ever imagined. Just working with your team, paying attention to what you're doing, paying attention to the changes being made, pushing the team constantly to find new areas, asking more of the team, whether it's testing or wind-tunnel time or new parts, just constantly pushing for more."

The distance between trying to be great and being great is long. She'll be given the time she needs to complete it. Stewart, her team owner, is a former open wheel driver like Patrick. He sees this as a long-term project, and he won't give up on her after a season or two. GoDaddy, meanwhile, cares less about her results on the track and more about the fact that she represents the company's ideals. "She represents chutzpah," says GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving. "That's a pretty cool thing to represent."

And in NASCAR, representing is at least as important as results.

* * *

People love sports because they are the last meritocracy: A player rises or falls based on performance. NASCAR is still a meritocracy. But driving ability is not the only measure. Nobody gets a full-time ride in NASCAR solely because he or she is a great driver. The driver must appeal to sponsors, too.

As Patrick has moved to the middle of the road, so to speak, she has found it crowded with companies who want to ride along with her. The farther she gets from her scantily clad appearances in magazines and commercials, the more access she has to a broader range of endorsement deals, a transformation that is essentially complete now.

As NASCAR dove deeper into the mainstream after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 and the arrival of Nextel/Sprint as the title sponsor in 2004, a subtle but important shift in power occurred, from the owners to the sponsors. An owner can no longer hire a driver without significant input, if not approval, from sponsors.

Patrick's critics have long said that she has her job because of what she looks like rather than how she races. However true that is, it's also an ugly lie, because many drivers have their jobs in part for reasons unrelated to how they drive.

No doubt, Patrick uses her appearance and image to her advantage. But so do male drivers. With 16 wins and four postseason appearances, Kasey Kahne is a solid Sprint Cup driver. He also has been helped by his good looks. When he broke into the Cup series, his team owner, Ray Evernham, recounted his then-wife telling him she didn't know if Kahne could drive, but Evernham had to hire him "because he's drop-dead gorgeous."

No drivers are fat or ugly. Sponsors pay millions of dollars to be attached to NASCAR, and they don't want their products endorsed by a buck-toothed yokel, no matter how fast he drives. Sponsors want young, good-looking, articulate and charismatic drivers.

Several drivers have told me that when they raced on low-level circuits, they practiced giving interviews at home in front of the mirror. They knew, even as teenagers whose dreams sounded ridiculous to everyone but them, that being a great driver was not enough. They had to look and act the part. Male drivers have gotten braces to fix their teeth, visited stylists to fix their mullets and worn hats on TV to hide their receding hairlines, all because appearances matter in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 19 races and made the postseason four times, yet there are still fans who insist that if his name was Dale Greenberg Jr. he'd be working at a car wash. A few weeks ago, driver Kevin Harvick slammed Ty and Austin Dillon, brothers who race in the trucks and Nationwide series, saying they only got where they are because their grandfather owns Richard Childress Racing. Harvick has since apologized, but the point is the same: No matter how a driver gets his ride, someone will think he or she doesn't deserve it.

* * *

With the 2013 Sprint Cup season over, most drivers will disappear until February. But being Danica Patrick means being in the public eye year-round. Between now and the 2014 Daytona 500, she will appear on a Kelly Clarkson Christmas special, co-host the American Country Music Awards and be featured in her 13th Super Bowl commercial.

All of those are big news in the NASCAR bubble, but none compares to last offseason's announcement that Patrick and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse were dating. Never in major American sports have a man and woman who compete against each other also been in a romantic relationship. Patrick and Stenhouse competed for rookie of the year honors, with Stenhouse winning.

patrick_stenhouse
Patrick with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at an autograph session in Iowa in May 2012. (Getty Images)

Patrick says Stenhouse was always friendly to her, and that their friendship became more than that after they spent time together last year while racing against each other in the Nationwide Series.

She talks about him often. Her agent, Mark Dyer, says the blossoming of their relationship has done wonders for her, both lightening her up and broadening her interests. She often calls herself a girlie girl, but she celebrated winning the pole in the Daytona 500 by meeting Stenhouse at a dirt track that evening. She loves to cook and tweets pictures of meals she prepares for the two of them. He loves country music and rodeos and converted her to both. While he looks like he was born wearing a belt buckle, boots and a 10-gallon hat, he has accompanied her in red carpet appearances. They spend a lot of time together in Charlotte and at the racetrack, and based on their Twitter feeds and interviews, they sound like a typical couple, all things considered. And there are a lot of things to consider. As USA Today's Nate Ryan wrote: "They somehow have managed dating and racing each other seamlessly -- well except for those two instances in which they slammed into each other at full speed."

Once was (probably) his fault, once was (probably) hers, but love means never having to say I'm sorry … for wrecking you.

They waded this summer into perhaps even more treacherous relationship waters: Stenhouse is teaching Patrick to golf. She tells a story about her first, and to date only, birdie. It came at a course in Mississippi with Stenhouse, one of his buddies and a bunch of his family members watching. On a 125-yard hole, she hit a six-iron to the green and drained a 15-foot putt. Patrick expects the length of the hole, and the severity of the putt, to grow the more she tells the story. She says the best golf advice Stenhouse has given her is, "Slow down. Stop trying so hard."

Which also happens to be the best racing advice there is.

It's good career advice, too. But she can't follow it on the day I follow her. Being Danica Patrick means always hustling, always going, always seeking the next thing, whether it's the next photo shoot or the next endorsement deal or the next racing series. "Purposeful," is the word that GoDaddy's Irving uses to describe her. "She's just like [smacks hands], let's go." She rushes from one appointment to the next all day long -- she gives five interviews, records several scenes for Kelly Clarkson's Christmas special and smiles through two photo shoots. 

I tell Patrick that Irving called her "purposeful," and she seems surprised. She says the term people usually use is "aggressive." She's that, too. I arrive as she has her hair and makeup done. That seems like a weird time to quiz her about qualifying. When I don't ask a question, she asks for one.

Another example: She doesn't like stopping to get gas because it's never part of her schedule and therefore makes her late. "I've run out of gas many times because I hate getting gas," she says. "I really do hate getting gas. I hate it. I will run on empty and see how many miles on empty I have. 'Oh, I have 80 miles? I can get there and back like twice.'"

This is the second time I've had a sit-down interview with Patrick, and I've interviewed her on the phone several times. She's friendly and thoughtful. She tries to give good answers to questions, even if she has been asked all of them 1,000 times. She asks questions of the people asking her questions, engages the conversation, as opposed to just giving rehearsed responses. She gets it, as writers say of cooperative subjects, even if that means she doesn't dazzle you with insights she's never given anyone else.

On the day I spend with her, the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin controversy glows hot. By coincidence, she gives an interview for an anti-bullying campaign. Being Danica Patrick means living in a world of extremes, where anonymous online enmity allows anyone to say anything at anytime. "People are so mean. I've had people say, 'I wish you died in that wreck,'" she says. "You can't help but let it get to you a little bit."

Patrick has tried over the years to develop thick skin, starting while she raced in Europe in her late teens and overheard fellow drivers talking about her, just loud enough for her to hear. The advent of social media has made it more important, and more difficult, to ignore the noise.

While she can't totally insulate herself from public opinion, she can control her reaction to it. "What people say shouldn't make you feel a certain way. You shouldn't be like, 'Oh, people like me and said I did a good job, I must've done a good job.' You might not have," she says. "You can't let everything that people say, good or bad, dictate your opinion of yourself."

 

patrick_in_action
Patrick and the field drive through Turn 2 during the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (USA TODAY Sports)

* * *

Patrick tweets a picture of an empty table in a GoDaddy lunchroom and writes that she's eating lunch with all her friends. But being Danica Patrick means never eating alone -- or on this day being alone. All day long, people invade her personal space, fixing her hair or adjusting her clothes or clipping a microphone to her. "Sometimes I just can't believe I need this much touching," she says as a stylist combs her hair. "But I clearly do."

Sitting at that once empty table, she talks with publicists, reporters, her wardrobe woman and her stylist. Patrick checks her fantasy football team, which she christened "Great North Venison." Led by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Great North Venison is 6-3 and tied for second.

The crew from her Stewart-Haas Racing team arrives. Gibson, her crew chief, walks by Patrick, notes her hair pulled up off of her shoulders and calls her Princess Leia. 

Gibson worked for Alan Kulwicki, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, among others, before becoming Patrick's crew chief this year. A barrel with arms and legs, he likes to shoot animals and eat them and/or hang their heads on his wall. He is a dirty-nailed mechanic and a big-picture guy, like a sabermetrician who embraces the value of scouting. He is exactly what Patrick needs --- a guy who can build a fast car and who won't freak out at life in Patrick's bubble.

Gibson and other crew members sit at an adjacent table, and Patrick joins them. Here is exposed another big difference between Patrick and other prominent female athletes: She not only competes against men, she also must navigate an environment dominated by them.

NASCAR's garage area is a locker room, except outdoors and with power tools. God help you if you have funny hair or a speech impediment … or a different set of chromosomes. As Patrick became a regular figure there, people wondered how she would fit in. If she's ever going to be just another driver, this was a crucial benchmark. 

For all its motor oil cologne and testosterone body wash, the NASCAR garage still has an undercurrent of Southern manners in it. The gentlemen mechanics wondered if they'd have to watch their mouths when Patrick was around. Her teammates learned fairly quickly that coarse language wouldn't offend her.

She drops the occasional f-bomb over her in-car radio. One of her favorite movies is Anchorman, and when I ask for her favorite line, she does her best Will Ferrell impression. "Don't act like you're not impressed," and then describes the scene in which Ferrell's character brags about an erection.

Patrick says she gets along with men in the sport because she understands them. She understands them, she says, because they're not complicated. "Girls read into things, think about them a lot. Guys really don't think that hard. They don't read into things nearly as much as girls."

That makes men easy to work with, she says. "This is where women take guys wrong, sometimes. I don't know if I'm going too far with this or not. But I get their sense of humor. Sometimes guys say inappropriate things. They're just joking around most of the time. And if they weren't, I would put them in their place and probably wouldn't spend any time with them anymore. I wouldn't take offense to it. I [would] just think the guy's an idiot. For the most part, being around guys is about understanding their sense of humor.

"They're usually all pretty much the same. They think the obvious. A pretty girl walks by. They're thinking, 'That's a pretty girl.'"

Patrick looks at a list of questions culled from fans via Facebook that she is about to answer on video. She jokes about the worst possible intro she could make up. She thanks each person by name for the question. She contemplates life after racing, says her favorite meal to eat is breakfast and reveals that her favorite color is red.

This takes place in an open office area at GoDaddy headquarters, and as she prepares to leave, she spies a dry erase board. She stops next to it and picks up a marker. Forget trying to be great, she's trying to be nice, as she knows that her presence throws normal out the window.

Just like when she first showed up at the racetrack.

She thinks for a second. She starts to write. 

Thank you all for being so smart! Writing [She pauses and asks: "Do the people who work in here write code?" Told yes, she continues.] code sounds like me trying to speak Chinese.

Have a great day!

Danica


*Oh and thanks for being quiet while we were shooting.

Two guys working nearby walk up and ask to have their pictures taken with her. One wears a Mariners hat and a Seahawks shirt. The other wears a baseball hat with Mickey Mouse on it, a T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops.

Two guys becomes three … then four … then five … then six.

Being Danica Patrick means there's always more to do, so she wooshes out the door and into the parking lot. She's got her track walk on, the pace that allows drivers to leave autograph seekers behind. Soon she's 20 feet ahead of everybody, going fast, all by herself, on the way to the next appointment. "How do those little legs walk so fast?" her hairstylist says as she lags behind.

* * *

Matt Crossman is the author of more than 30 cover stories in national sports magazines. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com and follow him on Twitter @MattCrossman_.