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Danica Patrick flies free from burden of NASCAR expectations on final Daytona ride

Danica Patrick flies free from burden of NASCAR expectations on final Daytona ride
Danica Patrick is interviewed during Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel)

Look for Danica Patrick at a farmers market near you soon.

That's how she rolls these days. Free and breezy. Unencumbered.

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She will race in Sunday's Daytona 500, and then say goodbye to this NASCAR gig for good. Most of you know the particulars.

Patrick moved the needle in so many ways but not the speedometer. She competed in 190 Cup races since her debut in 2012, finishing with just seven Top 10s, including one in her last 72 races.

But there's all that other stuff that gave NASCAR a bounce on social media and elsewhere, and roped in fans such as little girls who dared to dream and others who just wanted to see a woman mix it up in a man's playground.

It was a neat story until the frustration continued to fester, sponsors bailed and the joy of competing was sucked out of her fancy motorcoach, which offered privacy but not solace.

It was time to go.

"It got to the point where I thought, 'You know what? I'm good,' " she said during a break from the NASCAR Media Day scrum Wednesday.

In many ways, Patrick is exactly where she needs to be: in her happy place. She is promoting her fitness and lifestyle book — "Pretty Intense" — plus a wine and clothing line with the Danica Patrick brand.

And she still drives chatter in cyberspace, officially atwitter at Patrick new romance with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. TMZ has labeled them "Aaronica."

There are other labels she must wear, along with all those sponsorship shout-outs on her firesuit. Her NASCAR career will be forever dragged through the sport's archives by some observers as a misguided marketing move that imploded. What were people thinking, assuming the move from open-wheel racing to a much-heavier stock car would be an easy-peasy transition?

"I still have a lot of respect for what she has done," said three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, now an analyst with Fox. "I like to say, 'It's the sum of all the parts,' and she attracted eyeballs to our sport. She attracted a lot of young women.

"There's an audience that she appeals to that I could never appeal to. From what she's contributed, other than lack of performance, everything else I'd have to give her an 'A.'"

Patrick, 35, understandably doesn't want to get caught up in the pop psychology of her struggles in NASCAR and what legacy she leaves behind. It is what it is.

The numbers don't lie, but they don't tell the whole story.

"I'm not one of those people who looks back on anything and says, 'I wish this would have been different,' because I am happy with where I am now," she said. "And perhaps it would be different if one thing was different at any point. I'm a big believer in the butterfly effect."

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She flies free now. It will be odd not having anything on her docket. She will compete in Daytona thanks to Premium Motorsports, which owns a NASCAR charter that guarantees her a spot in the Feb. 18 restrictor-plate race. She also will reconnect with longtime sponsor GoDaddy for the race.

After that, it's an extended break from racing until the Indianapolis 500 in May, a one-off deal completing the "Danica Double," bookends that complete her driving career journey.

And then, her freedom ride.

Wine and food. Yoga and 100 burpees a day. The yin with the yang of life.

"I'm excited to have a weekend," she said. "I'm excited to go to a farmers market. Simple things like that.

"There's always a farmers market. There's always vacation. There's always just enjoying life. I love the idea of looking at my schedule and being able to plan things. I don't even trust it yet. I don't trust it can happen yet."

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