NASCAR Kentucky 2013: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick defend Danica Patrick

USA TODAY Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick defended Danica Patrick a day after she was called a "marketing machine" and "not a race car driver" by Kyle Petty.

A day after former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty referred to Danica Patrick as a "marketing machine" and "not a race car driver", Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to Patrick's defense.

Speaking at Kentucky Speedway, the site of this weekend's Sprint Cup race, Earnhardt disagreed with Petty's assessment, calling Patrick a "tough competitor."

"She works really hard at what she does," Earnhardt said Friday. "She has run some really good races. On every occasion she is out running several guys out on the circuit.

"If she was not able to compete and not able to run minimum speed or finish in last place every week, I think you might be able to say Kyle has an argument. But she's out there running competitively and running strong on several accounts."

Petty, an analyst for Speed/TNT, made his comments during a segment that aired on the Speed program "Race Hub." He said Patrick is fine going fast for a single lap in qualifying, but struggles on long runs and when other cars are on the track.

"She can go fast, but she can't race," Petty said.

He also remarked that because Patrick, 31, was late in transitioning to stock cars it was too late for her to become a successful NASCAR driver.

"I think she's come a long way, but she's still not a race car driver," he said. "And I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver. Because I think it's too late to learn."

A rookie in Cup, Patrick has struggled this season. In 16 starts, she has finished on the lead lap on just five occasions and has placed better than 15th only three times with an average finish of 25.8.

However, there have been moments this year where Patrick has turned heads for what she is doing positively on the track rather than what she is not doing.

She won the pole for the Daytona 500, the first time a woman has ever secured the No. 1 starting position in NASCAR's premier division. And Patrick would later become the first woman to lead a lap in the 500 en route to an eighth-place finish. She also recorded an impressive 12th on the short track at Martinsville.

It's those performances which has earned her respect among her peers, including Earnhardt.

"I think that she has got a good opportunity and a rightful position in the sport to keep competing and she just might surprise even Kyle Petty," Earnhardt said.

When asked about Petty's comments, Kevin Harvick called it a "loaded gun." He then proceeded to point out how difficult it is for a driver without a background in stock-car racing to adjust to the amount of horsepower a Cup produces.

"It is really hard to understand what you need to drive these cars, and to be able to drive them fast," Harvick said. "It is just not something that is going to happen overnight. I don't know that I would go as far as calling her not a racer because she has raced her whole life, and I think on a continuous learning curve.

"She's obviously dedicated at what she does to try and get better, and knows she has a lot of hurdles to overcome in a short amount of time."

One advantage Harvick acknowledged that Patrick had over other drivers with similar results is the strong support she has from her sponsor, GoDaddy. It's a relationship that goes back to her time in IndyCar and has proved beneficial to both parties as the two are now synonymous with one another. And Patrick this week was named by Forbes as one of the "world's most powerful celebrities."

"She's fortunate to have a sponsor that is willing to back her, and take those learning experiences with her," Harvick said. "Hopefully as the weeks progress, she gets better and better."

As for the criticism that Patrick faces in part because of her celebrity status, he says it's something all drivers face to one degree or another.

"It is almost that unfair part of being really popular," Harvick said. "In her case, she obviously has got a lot of attention and things that come with it. She seems to, just being around her the little bit that I have, seems to have kind of become immune to it.

"I think she is realistic with her goals, and understands that she has a lot to learn and tries to take everything in. It is easier just to turn it all off. Not read it. Not listen to it. Because at some point, whether it is her, or myself, or Dale, Jr. or Tony Stewart, or whoever it may be; you are going to be criticized."

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