Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Turns out Danica really is a driver

"Drivers ... and Danica, start your engines!"

Yeah, that's what the guy said. I'd never heard of Daytona 500 grand marshal James Franco -- and that probably says a lot more about my lameness than his -- but he got my attention with that line.

After all, only moments before, Franco had said this on my TV: "It's only four words."

FOX was doing one of those promote-the-movie deals on the prerace show, and the host made some comment like "Grand marshal ... big responsibility!" And fresh-faced Franco said: "It's only four words."

He's right. It is only four words. Or at least it should be.

"Drivers, start your engines."

That's what you say when you have a woman in the field. If you want to go six words, you say: "Gentlemen ... and Danica, start your engines." While the former is preferable (at least to me), the latter at least gives a nod to Danica Patrick's achievement.

Instead, he went with something that can only be described as condescending: "Drivers ... and Danica, start your engines!"

What's that supposed to mean? That Danica Patrick isn't really a driver? That the pole-sitter is nothing more than some kind of sideshow?

My conscience said this was appalling. My heart? Well, it said that Franco was crude but right. In fact, the longer I watched Sunday's Daytona 500, the more I realized what a hypocrite I was.

I was waiting for Patrick to screw up. I was expecting it. I was poised to pounce once the hype was proven to be nothing more than that - hype.

Patrick wouldn't allow it. She stayed in the top 3 for much of the day. Favorites crumbled. Out went Harvick. Out went Stewart. Yet there was Patrick, the female rookie, competing like a veteran.

Patrick finished eighth. This is the story of the 2013 Daytona 500 to me. Jimmie Johnson might have won, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have finished second, but the story - hype or no hype - was Patrick.

Look, the results of the Daytona 500 guarantee nothing. This place is different. You can't say Johnson is poised to win a sixth championship just because he won the Great American Race.

Likewise, you can't say Patrick is going to be any kind of factor in the Sprint Cup championship chase. Daytona doesn't translate.

The 1.5-mile tracks, so plentiful on the circuit, are the ones that tell you who's in and who's out. Martinsville doesn't care how fast your car is; you'd better know how to hit the breaks and the gas at the right times while you're negotiating heavy traffic. We'll see all those venues soon enough.

But here's what mattered Sunday: Patrick shut up guys like Franco and me. She showed she was a driver.

Pretty cool.

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