Danica Patrick: Courtesy Getty Images
Charlotte, N.C.--Danica-mania" will make a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the biggest Memorial Day tailgate party in the world this weekend, as the 30-year-old Illinois native continues to test her mettle against NASCAR's best competition at the Coca-Cola 600.
Though she is far from the first female to compete at NASCAR's highest level, Patrick, by virtue of being in the top 35 in owner's points, is locked into a spot in Sunday's marathon race - and she's pretty excited to take part in NASCAR's toughest test of driver and machine, the only 600 mile race on the Sprint Cup schedule.
"I'm racing in the Coke 600, and that's a pretty darn big event. It's a new challenge. It's a big challenge," Patrick said. "I'm sure there are going to be some points in time that I feel like it's going on forever, and that's because it is. But that's the fun of the Coke 600, lots of time to have fun."
With a start in the Coca-Cola 600, Patrick would become just the second woman to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte's 1.5-mile superspeedway, an attempt that comes 36 years after another woman - Janet Guthrie - shook the male-dominated motorsports establishment to its very foundation.
After failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie turned her attention to Charlotte Motor Speedway and the World 600, now known as the Coca-Cola 600.
Guthrie's presence in the NASCAR garage drew ire and skepticism. Though she would be the 11th woman to compete in NASCAR, no woman had ever attempted a race on a high-speed, banked oval, let alone one that was 600 miles, and Guthrie's naysayers doubted a woman's ability to physically handle a stock car for such a marathon event.
Others said she wouldn't qualify or that speedway officials would falsify her qualifying time to assure Guthrie a starting spot.
Guthrie qualified with a lap of 157.797 mph, good enough for the 27th starting spot in the 40-car field.
Once she qualified for the World 600, the speedway sold more tickets in one day than it has at any other time. Executives from ABC negotiated a deal to include the race as part of the network's "Wide World of Sports" Indy 500 broadcast, a boon at a time when NASCAR lacked mainstream media coverage.
Guthrie completed the full 600-mile distance and finished 15th despite being 21 laps down to winner David Pearson.
Patrick said she's eager to build the history of female drivers at Charlotte Motor Speedway during this year's 600-mile marathon.
"I'm looking forward to the experience. I'm looking forward to the atmosphere," she said. "I'm really just excited to get a feel for it. It's one of the biggest weekends of the year for NASCAR."
Charlotte Motor Speedway