Has Danica Patrick Become The Face Of NASCAR?

Basking in the public spotlight is nothing new for Danica Patrick. She's been a media darling since 2005, when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500.

But that was in IndyCar, where she was a big fish in a small pond – at least in terms of visibility.

She's since taken that spotlight to NASCAR full-time in 2012, leading people like Darrell Waltrip to declare she's become the new face of the sport.

Patrick doesn't put a lot of stock into that line of thinking, but she's grateful for the opportunity to make a positive impact.

"It's really nice to see families coming out to the track because it gives the little girls or the kids someone else to cheer for," Patrick said. "The family aspect is why I started racing in the first place. It was a way for my mom, sister, and I to do things together on weekends."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has traditionally been the face of NASCAR, winning the NMPA Most Popular Driver Award every season since 2002. But his 140-race winless streak that began in 2008, coupled with his shy and reserved nature, may have left an opening for Patrick in terms of marketing.

If Patrick tastes any success this year, it could shift the balance of national attention from Earnhardt Jr. to Patrick, the fresh-faced newcomer.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson recognizes the impact Patrick has had on the sport but dismissed the notion that she's becoming its top draw.

"I haven't noticed," Johnson said. "What I have learned through the years is that the television cameras focus on what the people want to see and where the attention is focused. But when you ask if it bothers me, I don't have any feelings on it one way or the other."

Some fans have voiced displeasure at the amount of television coverage she's received this year, but Johnson chalks it up to smart marketing by NASCAR and its broadcast partners.

"I'm glad she's in the sport," Johnson added. "She brings a huge fan base with her, but marketing is marketing; you have to do what you have to do."

At the end of the day, more eyeballs on NASCAR is a positive development, and that's exactly what Patrick provides. The Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona scored the highest non-Sprint Cup NASCAR race in ESPN history with many citing Patrick's pole-sitting effort as the deciding factor.

Has Danica become the face of NASCAR or will she need to back up her publicity with on-track success first?

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