Danica Patrick is NASCAR’s little dolly, pretty much regardless of what she thinks.

Of the first 10 pictures that lead the Google search “Danica Patrick,” only two show Patrick sporting her popular NASCAR jumpsuit. The others include her in a much more revealing sense, erotically clad as an article accentuating either a sports car or a sandy beach.

Is this a bad thing? It’s hard to be certain. Patrick won the “Most Popular Driver” award on the Nationwide Tour last season, but when you enter a profession blanketed by men, standing out in the crowd is part of the unwritten agreement.

Whether or not she is NASCAR’s showgirl remains rather trivial, though. The subject at hand, however, is Patrick as a professional race car driver.

“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” Patrick said to the press after winning the pole position for the Daytona 500. 

She might be exactly right, but thus far, she has only been the latter.

For her to stand out with more than just Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition beauty, she’ll have to show that she can beat the boys and win a race. 

The NASCAR season begins this weekend, and the stage couldn’t be more perfect.

Having won the pole for the 55th edition of the Daytona 500, Patrick will find her best chance to win a race after being given the early lead when the green flag flaps in the wind at Daytona Speedway Sunday afternoon.

All 42 men will begin behind the only woman in the field, but once the race commences, the chase will be on for the gender that has never allowed a female driver to reach the winner’s circle. Not once has a female won an official NASCAR race.

Each time she starts her engine, Patrick takes on another opportunity to be the first, so starting the race Sunday marks an important milestone for her career. Once she is the first to cross the starting line, however, the only history she’ll gladly accept is if she can also be the first to cross the finish line.

While a win at Daytona will not delete the revealing photos on the Internet or make NASCAR’s lovely daughter anything less than glowingly attractive, it will help her finally arrive on the biggest stage of professional racing, a place she yearns to be.

It would make for quite the arrival. In a sport so thoroughly dominated by men, Patrick has been merely a speck, just a sparkle of variance.

She spent seven years as an IndyCar driver, logging just a single victory in 2008 at the Indy Japan 300. Her 10 starts on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are summed up with a bunch of middle of the pack performances, one finger-wagging incident and a career best finish of 24th.

But regardless of her past and overall lack of accomplishments, her place as the lead dog at Sunday’s start cannot be taken away. It will be her moment to rise, falter or fall into the mediocrity that has defined her short career to this point.

It extends further than just Danica Patrick, however. Patrick’s progress, or lack thereof, whichever you choose, involves more people than simply the principal advertising representative of GoDaddy.com. The 30-year-old driver is fully engulfed as the female leader within one of the few arenas that put man against woman in sporting theater.

Most things just cannot compare – through physical build alone – between the best athletes with a Y chromosome and the best athletes without one. Michael Phelps swims faster than Missy Franklin. Tiger Woods hits a golf ball farther than Michelle Wie. In almost all instances, comparison simply isn’t fair.

On only a few occasions have women and men faced each other in evenhanded contest. Three tennis matches, each dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” saw female tennis players battle over an honest net against male counterparts.

The male players won two of the three matches that took place between 1973 and 1992, but Billie Jean King beat the ever-cocky Bobby Riggs in 1973. King now sits alone atop the proverbial Mount Rushmore of women to conquer men in professional sports. For nearly 40 years, King has been saving spots next to her in history and Patrick is finally in position with a chance to join her.

Although NASCAR isn’t recognized as one of the major sports around the world, a Patrick victory would help the world recognize her as a winner of the Daytona 500 and not just the pinnacle of many dreamy Super Bowl commercials.

It could also inspire young women into racing, or remind them of tennis or give them greater hope in golf, swimming, life, work, etc.

It would show that strategically turning left at nearly 200 miles per hour isn’t just a game for the boys. Girls can drive, too, and they just might be able to do it pretty well.

And lastly, it would also be a pleasant surprise to all, given her less-than lofty expectations and history straying away from her side.

At 18-to-1 odds, Patrick clearly isn’t the favorite to win the race. That depends, of course, on how you define a favorite.

Sean is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Think Patrick has a shot at winning the Daytona 500? Let him know with an email to [email protected] or on Twitter @sean_zak.