IndyCar puts on its face with Danica


FORT WORTH, Texas -- Racing in Saturday's Firestone 550K is three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and "Dancing with the Stars" heartthrob Helio Castroneves. Also participating is two-time Indy champ Dario Franchitti, the magnificently coiffed husband of actress Ashley Judd.

Then there's Indy champ and two-time IndyCar Series title holder Scott Dixon. And Dan Wheldon, an Indy and series champion himself.

Yet which driver's face adorns the large promotional banner welcoming race fans into Texas Motor Speedway? Well, of course, none other than the driver who bears her skin in skimpy magazine spreads and revs up those racy spots for GoDaddy.com. The one who even sexes up antifreeze: "People often ask what it takes to get under my hood ..." begins the TV spot for Peak.

Yes, Danica Patrick, as sultry as she wants to be, remains the face of the IndyCar Series. She's no pushover on the track -- although in her sixth season on the circuit she's claimed only a single victory -- but the flaunted femininity of the 5-foot Patrick is what has made her the most visible and viable driver in this testosterone-fueled sport.

That's why a seductive glare from Patrick, and not a smiling Castroneves or Franchitti, last week's Indy 500 winner, greets fans on the welcome banner.

"She's the most recognizable name in the field and that's pretty good company to keep when you're talking about people like Helio and Dario and Tony Kanaan and on and on," TMS president Eddie Gossage said. "I've got to be honest, I thought that the Danica-mania thing was over a couple years ago and she was just another driver -- albeit a driver that has been in Victory Lane. But when she went to NASCAR and ran some with them, it just reignited the whole thing again, and the flame's bigger than it's ever been. Does she need to put some points on the board? Yeah, she does, but I think she knows that."

Patrick will start in Row 4 for Saturday night's race at TMS after posting the eighth-fastest time during Friday's qualifying. She enters the IndyCar Series' second-biggest race sitting in 12th place in the points standings. She finished sixth last week at Indy, which was one of her better races after a rough start to the season that essentially has already removed her from contention for the series championship.

Soon she will begin hopping between IndyCar and NASCAR, where she's dipping her toes in the Nationwide Series for the first time. In three Nationwide Series races so far, her average starting position is 29.3 and her average finish is 34.0.

She's scheduled to make her NASCAR debut at TMS in November. While Patrick will again be a publicity draw driving in the far more popular series, it's doubtful her face will adorn any welcome banner when Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the boys come thundering into town.

"I'm excited. I've had a really great fan reaction, especially last night [in Dallas] at the autograph session. I signed a lot of stock cars," Patrick said. "I think that the fans are excited to see me race here, which is always a nice feeling. Hopefully it will be a good race for us. It's been a lot of fun and I think at times that I could have had some good results, some top-10s."

Of course, there are those who snicker at Patrick's move to NASCAR, believing it's an obvious avenue to expand her visibility and popularity without actually winning on the track. But that's not something anyone says publicly, just as IndyCar drivers stunt their resentment of Patrick's popularity to private whispers.

"I knew when we did that [put Patrick on the welcome banner]," Gossage said, "people would say, 'Ah there you go, featuring her.'"

Patrick can be harsh, rude and abrasive when dealing with fellow drivers, the media and even her own crew -- she was lustily booed at Indy after she blamed her crew for her poor qualifying run over the public address system. She is the master of her domain and a free sprit -- such as choosing to promote her softer side away from the track.

She's also an ambassador of sorts. Patrick isn't the original pioneer, but her four top-10 finishes in the points standings the past four years have helped to legitimize female drivers. Four of the 26 cars in Saturday's race will be piloted by women -- not that Patrick necessarily seems eager to share a spotlight she's marketed so well.

"Anybody who can do the job and put on a good show for the fans," Patrick said, "deserves to be there."

Sarah Fisher has raced since 1999 and is the team owner. But since Patrick's explosion into the sport, former model Milka Duno has competed since 2007 with only limited success, and attractive, 21-year-old Swiss rookie Simona de Silvestro already has one top-10 finish in seven races this season.

"I think why in Indy cars there are so many women is because Danica did a good job," de Silvestro said. "She was always [racing] up front, in the last couple of years. I think she opened the door for us. Because she did so well in this category, I think they are a little more open to it. If we can prove to be up front all the time, it will open more doors."

For now there's only one Danica -- a bulldog on the track, a kitty cat off it, and all the while the undeniable face of IndyCar.

Jeff Caplan covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.