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Sunday's Daytona 500 Kicks Off NASCAR Season


NASCAR drivers start their engines on Sunday for the first time this Season, at the Daytona 500. And all eyes will be on the woman leading the pack at the starting line. Danica Patrick will be the first woman to start in pole position for any race in the history of NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series. Patrick's milestone comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which has seen a steep decline in ticket sales over the last few years and has some big TV contract negotiations coming up.

For more, we're joined from Daytona International Speedway by Jeff Gluck. He's the motorsports reporter for USA Today. Jeff, welcome.

JEFF GLUCK: Thank you very much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Danica Patrick starts the race in first. How likely is it that she'll finish the race in first?

GLUCK: You know what? It's not very likely. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's essentially a lottery here at Daytona. The cars travel in packs because the speeds are restricted. NASCAR doesn't want the cars to fly into the stands and this track is so big that if they didn't restrict the engines, the cars would get going too fast where they could essentially take off if they got out of shape.

So when they travel in packs the one that ends up winning the race is almost by chance at times, you know, just the right time. So although she's going to start up front, the chances that she'll finish there is, kind of, anybody's guess.

WERTHEIMER: So pole position does not correlate with winning?

GLUCK: That's correct. The last time a pole winner actually won the race was 2000, and it's only been done twice since they started restricting the engines and putting them in the pack.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Danica Patrick has been racing for quite a number of years now. And at the beginning of her career, she attracted huge attention because she is a glamorous woman. But for some time she seemed to be, you know, quite a bit more glamour than go. For those of us who are not completely hooked on NASCAR, could you just give us a short version of Danica Patrick's path to the pole position?

GLUCK: So in North America, there's basically two popular forms of motorsports-the Indy cars, which are the ones that race the Indy 500, are the ones that look like the little rocket ships with wheels.

WERTHEIMER: And that's where she started.

GLUCK: Right. That's where she started. And in her first year I think she finished fourth in the Indy 500, which at the time was the best finishing position ever for a woman. And so she kind of rocketed to stardom. It's only in the last couple of years here that she's switched over to NASCAR which has more money and more fame and more star power available to drivers, because there's more fans.

And so I think Danica was looking for, kind of, a new start. And she hasn't succeeded, but I think there's a chance that, especially at Daytona where anything can happen, that could, kind of, change.

WERTHEIMER: Now, her pole position could not come at a better time for NASCAR. It's a kind of a public relations shot in the arm at a time when ticket sales are down and they've had some really down years.

GLUCK: Absolutely. Yes. You know, the thing is, a lot of people - and I know this from my own family and friends in some cases - you know, you just don't know a lot of NASCAR drivers' names even. And Danica Patrick is famous as much for her commercials as for her driving. So this, kind of, opens it up to a new audience.

Danica was asked to be on both CBS and NBC Nightly News this week. She's been on CNN. And let's face it, you don't really see a lot of NASCAR drivers appearing on those kind of programs. And if she's able to succeed with potentially new viewers tuning in on Sunday, I think it could be a real boost. And this really could be it.

WERTHEIMER: Jeff Gluck writes about motorsports for USA Today. We've reached him in Daytona. He's at the speedway. Jeff, thanks very much.

GLUCK: Thank you so much for having me.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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