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Rival drivers come to Patrick's defense

Race car driver Danica Patrick arrives to participate in the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Apri
Race car driver Danica Patrick arrives to participate in the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Apri

By Lewis Franck

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Danica Patrick shrugged off derisive remarks from NASCAR legend Richard "The King" Petty about her racing skills, and rival drivers came to her defense at Thursday's Media Day for the Daytona 500.

Last year, when Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, NASCAR's season opening and most storied race, it promised to be the dawning of a new era.

One year later, after her first full season driving for 2011 champion Tony Stewart's team, the 31-year-old Patrick has a record of no wins, one top-10 finish and 27th place in NASCAR's 2013 Sprint Cup Series.

When asked at the Canadian Motorsports Expo earlier this week if Patrick would win a race in NASCAR's premier series, Petty said: "(Only) if everybody else stayed home. If she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she'd showed up at a racetrack."

Patrick sidestepped the slam when asked by reporters ahead of the February 23 race.

"You know, people have said things in the past and they will say things in the future. I still say the same thing, and that's that everybody is entitled to their own opinion," Patrick said.

"People are going to judge what he said and I'm just not going to."

JURY STILL OUT

Rival drivers including 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and six-time series winner and defending champion Jimmie Johnson defended Patrick, saying the jury was still out on whether she would find success on the circuit.

"It's a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race," said Keselowski. "I wouldn't want to have my name behind that comment, so I think I would probably give that a little more time and see how that one plays out because there are races where I think she could win."

Johnson said it takes time to adjust to the competition.

"You need at least five years over here (Sprint Cup series) to figure out what's going on and to figure out these cars and be competitive," said Johnson.

"It's one thing to get within a half second (of rival drivers), but those couple of tenths are the hardest thing to find."

Beyond results on the track, Patrick has certainly been successful in bringing new fans and sponsors to the stock car series.

Even Petty acknowledged that.

"This is a female deal that's driving her," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, because that's good PR for me.

"More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport."

Winning the pole this Sunday would be a big lift for Patrick, but winning the Daytona 500 the following Sunday would silence the doubters.

"I'm giving it my all every single time I'm getting in the car, whether I'm making a simple qualifying run or I'm in the race," Patrick said.

(Editing by Larry Fine)

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