BY DAN GELSTON
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Danica Patrick and Aaron Rodgers brought a dose of A-list attraction to a pit road scene that was more fitting for a red carpet. The starry-eyed sweethearts were mobbed by fans and media clicking away for a snapshot of some PDA that would surely spawn headlines. Then the moment came: Rodgers, a full foot taller than his new girlfriend, put his hands on Patrick’s shoulders and leaned in for a good-luck kiss.
Patrick’s final NASCAR race at the Daytona 500 captured her career to perfection. She had photojournalists embedded with her, a hunky celebrity NFL QB boyfriend by her side, social media buzzing — and a crumpled Chevy towed to the garage that put a premature end to her race.
Patrick smooched her boyfriend and then kissed her NASCAR career goodbye when she was caught up in a wreck in Sunday’s race.
Her final win-loss record was a dud: 0 for 191 in the Cup series.
“I hope they remember me as a great driver and that I was a woman and it was really cool to watch and be there for,” Patrick said.
Her NASCAR farewell fittingly came on the sport’s biggest stage — in front of 101,000 fans at Daytona.
Patrick was in good spirits as she approached her car that had been swallowed by mobs of onlookers and security guards barking orders that made it futile to find a spot near the scrum. She posed for pictures with her family and Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, who was all smiles in a tight blue T-shirt and jeans before the race and watched from the pits.
“Who’s that girl with Aaron Rodgers?!” one fan cracked.
Funny, but all eyes at Daytona were on Danica.
She finished 35th on Sunday in the first leg of the ballyhooed “Danica Double” at Daytona International Speedway. She’ll make a return in May to IndyCar and race the Indianapolis 500 before Patrick calls it quits on her racing career.
“When she first started at 10, I knew about two months into it, I told my wife she’s going to change racing. I could see it,” said Patrick’s father, T.J.
Patrick was a driver at peace with her decision and ready to transition into the next chapter of her life.
She tweeted , “Ready to go!!!!!!” with a green heart emoji hours before the race. 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.”
Sure enough, Patrick was collected in a multi-car accident.
“I’m just sad that it ended that way,” she said.
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.” The fitness fanatic and author of a workout book also posted a pic of rows of Krispy Kreme doughnuts with the caption, “pre Daytona 500 prep.”
Her role as a female trailblazer will serve as her true lasting impact in racing.
“I want a storybook. I love to fulfill the storybook,” Patrick said. “We didn’t get to do that in the end, today. Hopefully, the whole career will stand for itself a little bit more than just the way it ended at Daytona.”
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.
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.
The former GoDaddy girl took a final ride in a bright-green No. 7 Chevrolet, fielded by Premium Motorsports.
Patrick is as much a brand these days as she is an athlete. Her love life, Super Bowl ads and racy photo shoots all generated more press 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. 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.
At Daytona, dad had some final words of advice.
“I tell her every week go out there, I love you, have fun,” T.J. Patrick said. “Once it stops being fun, then you need to get out. I think that’s what it got to be.”
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