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updated: 2/22/2014 4:53 PM

Danica Patrick continues to shake off Daytona doubters

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  • Danica Patrick prepares for the NASCAR Nationwide series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday.

      Danica Patrick prepares for the NASCAR Nationwide series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jamie Dodge is a 64-year-old die-hard Danica Patrick fan who made the trek from Huntington Beach, Calif., to watch her favorite driver in the Daytona 500.

Dodge says she's battling cancer and uses Patrick as an inspiration to continue her fight.

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"I was in an all-male profession for 25 years, so I know what she goes through every day," the former police officer said from the Fan Zone of the Daytona International Speedway. "To me, Danica inspires me to not give up."

So Dodge was absolutely incensed when Hall of Famer Richard Petty recently created a stir by claiming the only way Patrick could win a Sprint Cup race was if "everybody else stayed home."

Patrick's fans were outraged. Her boss, Tony Stewart, came to her defense and said he'd field a car for the 76-year-old so Petty and Patrick could settle the score on the track.

Patrick, as she almost always does, turned the other cheek and took the high road.

She responded politely when reporters asked repeatedly for her reaction, but she never bit back. She ignored Petty's comments much the same way she did last season when his son, Kyle, said she was a marketing machine and not a driver.

She ignored it the way she ignores the horrible tweets she receives daily. And she ignored it the way she's ignored the critical comments she's received since she was a little girl trying to make it in racing.

"I always have because I really don't care," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "When somebody says something like that, how can I really take it seriously? So, I really just don't care.

"It's partly being conditioned for so long and people saying so many things like that. It comes from being confident in what I can do. Where I'm at, having the support of the people around me, it's them believing in me. It's all those little side things.

"And I've had plenty of people over the last week come up to me and tell me 'You are great, you are awesome, you go get 'em girl. Don't listen to what anybody says about you.' I actually hear more positive than I do negative about these things."

Patrick said she can't remember a time in her life when hateful comments bothered her, and believes that mental toughness and inner strength comes both naturally and from how a person is raised.

She credits her father's determination and her mother's strength for helping her learn early how to handle adversity that's only sharpened in her move to NASCAR and the accessibility people have to her through social media.

"People are really mean on Twitter, people say things like 'I wish you would die,' because people can be cowardly behind their keyboard and they don't have to have a face. They don't have to have human contact with the words they say," she said.

"But I work hard and if I didn't, maybe I would feel bad. If my parents weren't strong and confident with me along the way then I'm sure it would make me insecure. If I wasn't born to a tough determined guy like my dad, and someone strong like my mom, then I probably wouldn't be like this.

"But I am who I am, and I don't care what people think about me. I just don't."

It's a strength three-time champion Stewart envies.

As Teflon as Stewart can often seem, he can be incredibly sensitive to criticism and he's marveled at the way Patrick handles brutal attacks from fans, media and her peers.

"I couldn't do it. I couldn't get beat up that bad. At some point I would put my foot down," he told AP. "I think probably her whole career she's had to fight that, unfairly, but she's had to fight it. That's a power, a super power I think. How she does it amazes me. I can't do what she does. She focuses on what's important to her.

"She has a great ability to tune out stuff that just doesn't matter. She fights the fights that are worth fighting. She doesn't worry about the ones that aren't and that's hard to do. I've made a career of fighting that. I wish 15 years ago I had the ability to do it the way she does it."

Now it's up to Patrick to prove Petty wrong, and her first chance comes Sunday in the Daytona 500.

A year ago she became the first woman to start from the pole and lead laps in the race, and went on to finish eighth as a rookie. No one should have expected anything less because that's what Patrick does -- she performs on the biggest stages. She was fourth as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, and finished third four years later.

The rest of the races? Ehh. They don't go as well.

She doesn't know why she rises when the lights are brightest.

"It's been a pattern. I feel like that I do better when there is more pressure. I hope that continues," she said. "I don't know if certain adrenaline and hormones get going in the right direction as a result of nervousness and anxiety. The more potential to do well that I have, the more nervous I get."

The goal, though, this year is to show improvement at all the races and to prove she can compete at places besides Daytona and Talladega. Maybe then the criticism will stop.

NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton doesn't think Patrick will ever escape the scrutiny.

"She has a wonderful opportunity in front of her because of her situation," Burton said. "But her situation, the price of that, is that she's under tons of scrutiny. But that's life. There's no free ride. You can't have this wonderful opportunity, but then not have something you've got to pay back for it. She's going to be scrutinized because of the opportunity she has. That's just the way it is."

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