DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Danica Patrick walked a red carpet alone, head down and with a steely focus on the final NASCAR start of her career.
The countdown was on for the first leg of the ballyhooed "Danica Double."
Patrick was ready to race Sunday for the final time in NASCAR at the Daytona 500. She'll make a return in May to IndyCar and race the Indianapolis 500 before Patrick calls it quits on her racing career.
She was a driver at peace with her decision and ready to transition into the next chapter of her life with new boyfriend Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers star watched Patrick race this week from the top of her pit box and will attend Sunday's race.
She tweeted, "Ready to go!!!!!!" with a green heart emoji hours before the race at Daytona International Speedway. On Instagram, it was a photo of her eyes peering through her race helmet with the caption, "Going to have to keep my eyes wide open today in the race. These cars and guys are going to do crazy things."
Patrick has moved on from both NASCAR and longtime boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Patrick and Stenhouse, once NASCAR's it couple, used to sit next to each other at the pre-race meeting. This week, the exes were kept separated on media availability schedules.
Patrick posted a photo on Instagram on Saturday of her and Rodgers with her family at the beach. She wrote "Doing Daytona with all the people that mean the most to me." Stenhouse had his own take on the race and Patrick, a fitness fanatic and author of a workout book, had an Instagram post, as well - of rows of chocolate iced and glazed sour cream cake donuts at Krispy Kreme with the caption, "pre Daytona 500 prep."
She leaves the sport winless in 190 career Cup starts, a total more than double the total number (78) of the 15 other female drivers who made at least one start.
Her influence as a female trailblazer will serve as her true lasting impact in racing.
Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron , the honorary starter for the Daytona 500, said she was cheering for Patrick. The 35-year-old Patrick is the only woman to start the Daytona 500 from the pole, lead laps in the race and is the highest-finishing female in the 60 years of the race.
"As a woman, that just seems pretty incredible," Theron said Sunday. "For me to be able to witness her last race, that feels very special. The girl in me is secretly obviously cheering for her. I just love that even my kids were just really impressed that a girl was racing cars today, too. I think that's such a good thing and we need more of that. Hopefully, we'll have more of that enter this culture."
NASCAR recognized Patrick in the pre-race meeting in honor of her accomplishments in motorsports. As NASCAR executive Steve O'Donnell went through the list of honorees and dignitaries at the Daytona 500, he included Patrick.
Patrick never had a top-five finish for Stewart-Hass Racing. She never won another pole after her breakthrough at the 2013 Daytona 500. She never had much success but carried the flag as one of NASCAR's only true mainstream stars. But as results sank, so did interest in funding her ride. Sponsors bailed, cash dried up and she was out of a job.
Sunday's race is one final ride in a bright-green No. 7 Chevrolet for the former GoDaddy girl. Her car is fielded by Premium Motorsports and Tony Eury Jr., who guided her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR that began in 2010, is the crew chief.
Patrick is as much a brand these days as she is an athlete. Her love life, Super Bowl ads and racy photo shoots were hot topics that generated more enthusiasm than her actual career accomplishments. She launched the clothing line "Warrior by Danica Patrick" after participating in the design process. She developed the workouts and meal plans for her book, "Pretty Intense: The 90-Day Mind, Body and Food Plan that will absolutely Change Your Life." Patrick is still a bankable celebrity and should have her pick of any future projects.
She accidentally revealed this week she'll drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in her final Indy 500.
Then she rides off for good.
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