DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Enough with the snarky comments about Danica Patrick.

Sure, she gets more attention than her accomplishments warrant because she's a pretty face competing in a male-dominated sport. Who knows if she'll ever be a series champion because, quite frankly, it's a rare breed that climbs to the top of any sport. Maybe she's destined to be a middle-of-the-pack racer her entire career, someone who can be counted on for solid results and an occasional win.

But, you know what?

She deserves to be here.

That was evident for 199 laps at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, when she started from the pole, led a total of five laps and ran near the front for most of "The Great American Race."

"At these speeds, she's very comfortable," five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "She held a great wheel. She was smooth and predictable. She was able to take advantage of the runs when she had them."

Then, the guy who had just won the sport's biggest race for the second time doled out the ultimate compliment.

"She was just a car on the track," Johnson said. "I didn't think about it being Danica. She was just another car on the track that was fast."

Patrick finally looked like a NASCAR Cup rookie on her last trip around the 2 1/2-mile oval. Suddenly, she was timid and unsure of herself. Running third when the white flag waved, she never gave herself a chance to challenge the two guys in front of her, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, she appeared to be going in reverse, hung out going down the backstretch as five cars zoomed past her.

She came across the line in eighth, a bit of a letdown to be sure. Surely, the people who tuned in only because of Danicamania were disappointed she didn't make a more aggressive run for the win.

Patience, everyone. This is a driver who cut her teeth racing sleek, open-wheel cars. She hasn't figured out how to win in one of these bulky stock cars.

"I know I'll be better next time," Patrick vowed.

She certainly knows how the game is played off the track, doing numerous interviews and promotional appearances after becoming the first woman to win a Daytona 500 pole. But, once the guy from the Zac Brown Band had finished singing the national anthem, it was time to go racing. She put in her ear plugs and showed the single-minded determination that impresses her rivals.

"If you want a picture with my back to you, that's fine," Patrick said coldly. "But I'm getting in the car because it's time to go to work."

Shortly after the green flag came out - displayed by none other than retired NFL star Ray Lewis - Patrick was quickly passed by the other car on the front row, driven by Jeff Gordon. But, near the midway point of the race, she came out of the pits in second and sped past Michael Waltrip for the lead - the first woman ever to lead a Cup race under full-speed conditions (Janet Guthrie, the pioneer for women racers like Patrick, led a few laps under yellow in the 1970s).

Patrick wasn't out front for long, but she was never too far back. She reported that her car was vibrating at one point, but it didn't slow her down. Her biggest stumbles came in the pits, where she kept spinning her wheels trying to get away quickly from the box at the far end of the lane, losing valuable track position time and time again.

Otherwise, it was a largely drama-free day, which is just the way you want things to be on a restrictor-plate track such as Daytona, where the field gets all bunched up and the slightest miscue can take out a whole pack of cars.

Patrick felt so comfortable driving at nearly 200 mph that she spent much of the afternoon going over strategy in her head, envisioning what the final lap might look like and what she might have to do to get around the cars ahead of her. Passing was at a premium in the new Gen-6 stock car, with only the most experienced drivers knowing how to pick their spots and generate the sort of momentum needed to get around someone.

Not ashamed to ask for advice, Patrick chatted up her crew chief and spotter over the radio, picking their brains on what strategy might work at the end of the race.

"How am I gonna do this?" Patrick recalled thinking. "I didn't know what to do exactly. Maybe that's just my inexperience. Maybe it was not me thinking hard enough. I'm not sure. I was a little bit uncertain how to do that."

Clearly, she didn't figure it out.

But it's time to accept she's not just a well-connected female taking up the spot of a more deserving male.

Danica belongs. Seriously, she's just the 13th driver to lead laps in America's two most famous races, the Indianapolis 500 and now the Daytona 500, joining the likes of Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Tony Stewart and Tim Richmond.

"It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress," said Earnhardt, who has long been the sport's most popular driver but might have some competition. "Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she's always remained really calm. She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks.

"I enjoy racing with her," Junior went on. "I look forward to more racing all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun having her in the series."

The folks in NASCAR are no dummies, either. Their sport was hit especially hard by the economic downtown, struggling to fill seats and bring in new sponsors. Now, along comes Patrick, a driver who has the potential to attract the sort of people who would've been more likely to tune in to an infomercial than a Sprint Cup race (though, to be honest, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference).

"I noticed something last night coming out of the track for dinner," Earnhardt said. "It just seemed to be a different vibe inside the infield. People seemed to be more excited about what was getting ready to happen today. Even today, there seemed to be a whole lot more people here. There seemed to be a lot more excitement about the race.

"I think," he added, "we're headed in the right direction."

For that, everyone can thank Patrick.

She may have gone in the wrong direction at the end of the race, but she's leading NASCAR into a brighter future.

Let's have no more questions about whether she belongs.

Copyright  2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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