Updated: Saturday, 02 Mar 2013, 8:59 PM EST
Published : Saturday, 02 Mar 2013, 8:25 PM EST
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Danica Patrick had already built quite a following from her IndyCar days, with a big assist from all those television commercials and magazine layouts.
The Daytona 500 took Danicamania to a new, frenzied level.
But now that the Daytona dust has settled, it's time for Patrick to dig in for the rest of the season, her first full one in a Sprint Cup car.
"I need to keep realistic expectations and everyone else does, too," Patrick said from Phoenix International Raceway, the next stop on the Sprint Cup schedule. "Daytona is a very unique place and this is kind of where the bulk of the season starts."
The real start to the season came last weekend at the Daytona 500, where Patrick became the first woman to win the pole at a Sprint Cup race and to lead green-flag laps.
Attention for one of auto racing's most popular drivers reached a fever pitch in Daytona, her face all over the news, everyone watching her every move, the daughters of a few of her fellow drivers wanting the opportunity to meet NASCAR's biggest draw.
Patrick handled it all well, thanks, in part, to having been through it before at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.
"I feel like now days, having the experience that I had in IndyCar and understanding how media works, what it's like to be busy and do a lot of interviews and things outside the car, and also building a great team helps me manage and tolerate all of that is very different than it was back in 2005," Patrick said.
She wasn't bad on the track, either, leading five laps and entering the final lap in third. Patrick faded as the field turned toward the checkers, dropping to eighth as a handful of veteran drivers dropped to the inside lane and passed her.
Disappointing? Sure, but she did earn a top-10 finish in NASCAR's biggest race, becoming the 13th driver to lead laps at the Indy and Daytona 500s.
Unlike 2005, when she struggled with everything that came after Indy, Patrick left Daytona at ease, ready to race at Phoenix and beyond.
"I kind of feel like it is another weekend now," she said. "Last weekend was what it was. But we're moving on and maybe in 2005 it was kind of a little bit of ongoing excitement level, and hope for me. I think I'm a little more mature now to know that these come, they go."
Still, there is a bit of a gnawing feeling about Daytona.
Perhaps due to her lack of experience, Patrick was passed by five cars as the field turned toward the checkered flag, leaving her feeling like she let a chance get away in Florida.
Maybe she did, but maybe not.
Team owner Tony Stewart told Patrick after the race that there was nothing she could have done, that trying a big move might have made things worse. Race winner Jimmie Johnson told her something similar, echoing the sentiments of drivers across the circuit.
"I thought she handled herself well," Jeff Gordon said. "She ran a good race."
Phoenix is Patrick's home track, but she hasn't felt particularly comfortable on PIR's mile oval.
She was 32nd in her first Nationwide race at Phoenix in 2010 and followed with a string of so-so finishes: 17th in the spring race the next year and 21st the next two races.
Patrick was so frustrated with her finish at the spring race last year that she stormed off without talking to the meeting, but started to feel better about the track at the fall race, where she finished 10th and was 17th the next day in the Sprint Cup race.
"I came here many times and continued to kind of suck," said Patrick, who will start 40th in Sunday's race after struggling with her car's handling. "I feel like at the end of the year was more of a breakthrough in the Nationwide car, and also in the Cup car. It was a good weekend. The best weekend I'd had in a Cup car."
Well, until last weekend.
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