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Danica Patrick speeding toward NASCAR's exit ramp

(AP Photo/John Raoux)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Danica Patrick was annoyed with herself. She had trained most of her life for moments like these, but she couldn't fix the inadvertent mess she had just made.

On the first leg of the "Danica Double," Patrick was in a scrum of reporters - the last place she wanted to be - in the middle of a long day of media obligations for the Daytona 500. New boyfriend Aaron Rodgers was on his way to the track, the NFL quarterback's first visit to her motorhome, and her cramped schedule was spoiling Valentine's Day.

So when asked an innocuous question about preparing for the final laps of her career, at the Indianapolis 500 in May, Patrick casually replied.

Too casually.

She said she was not yet thinking about the transition to IndyCar because "I didn't have time to meet up with Ed and the people."

Patrick immediately recognized the gaffe.

She had accidentally revealed she'll drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in her final Indy 500 . The cat was out of the bag, and a splashy announcement with sponsor GoDaddy in the coming months was ruined. Even worse? In that moment, she was powerless to fix it.

She twice cursed away from the microphone.

"I've never done that in my career," Patrick finally said.

She looked for one of her representatives, to no avail. She complained about how long the interview session was taking, and her answers became clipped, her annoyance apparent.

When finally dismissed, Patrick climbed down from a director's chair and stomped her foot in anger.

That moment says everything there is to know about the Daytona 500 and its role in the "Danica Double."

There are 500 miles left in Patrick's NASCAR career and no one wants them to come faster than Patrick. She turns 36 in March and began racing when she was 10. She moved from Illinois to England alone as a teenager to pursue her career. She became a famous driver and a cunning businesswoman who never before botched a sponsor-related reveal.

So good at protecting and promoting her brand, Patrick had nearly twice the "media hits" during NASCAR's offseason than current champion Martin Truex Jr. The marketing consulting firm Joyce Julius & Associates credited Patrick with 11,319 hits to Truex's 5,783. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Patrick's boyfriend for five years until the couple broke up at the end of last season, was third on the list with 5,002.

Many of the hits stemmed from the end of her relationship with Stenhouse followed by the announcement she was dating Rodgers .

But some involved the Double, Patrick's impending retirement and her new business ventures.

Patrick is the only woman to have started the Daytona 500 from the pole. She's the only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500. She's the highest-finishing woman in the race. Now, the only woman to accomplish nearly every meaningful statistic in American auto racing will run her final NASCAR race Sunday, and then Patrick is free.

She's done with stock cars and infields and motorhomes, and she's clear to go hiking and practice yoga and take all the vacations she wants. California, Coachella and chef-quality meals she prepares for wine-fueled dinners under the stars are calling.

Sunday's race is just one last go in a bright-green Chevrolet for the former GoDaddy girl. Her car is fielded by Premium Motorsports and crew chiefed by Tony Eury Jr ., who guided her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR that began in 2010. She has a good engine, strong enough that she can probably be racy if she wants to Sunday. But Patrick's slip on her Indy 500 plans showed she's kind of checked out, at least when it comes to NASCAR, already.

The Daytona 500 is just a dress rehearsal to the Indy 500, the race that really matters, and it's just one more hurdle in Patrick's path to living her best life. In two news-conference settings and one interview with The Associated Press over Patrick-prepared salads in her motorhome at Daytona International Speedway, she perhaps unconsciously revealed how truly ready she is to cut ties with auto racing:

-She doesn't think she'll watch many races: "I imagine as time goes by, I'll forget more and more often to maybe check the results. The big ones, you make plans, you make plans to watch the Daytona 500, you make plans to watch the big ones."

-She has no interest in mentoring young, female drivers: "I have a tough love. I've never seen (mentoring) for myself. Part of what I want to do is get away from the (racing) schedule. There are other things that I want to do."

-She wants to promote her wellness book, her clothing line, her wine, her secrets to happy, healthy living , and GoDaddy is back on board to help: "They're all about building a small business, side hustle. That's all I've got, a whole bunch of side hustle that I'm trying to make real."

-The Danica brand won't be found at a racetrack: "Next year will just hopefully be about my brand, building it up. I imagine myself traveling, vacations, knocking stuff off of a bucket list of things I want to do. Building the other brands up."

Anyone with enough courage and care can lead laps Sunday. It's just a matter of who wants to brave the aerodynamics and use horsepower and skill to navigate traffic. So Patrick can put on a show at Daytona if she desires to dazzle the NASCAR crowd one final time, or she can just turn laps and try to stay out of trouble.

Anyone can be caught in an accident, and in the highly probable case she does end up with a wrecked race car, well, Indianapolis is the real grand finale. That's the race where pomp and circumstance - and her performance - matter most.

She may be emotional Sunday. She was in November when she unexpectedly burst into tears while announcing retirement plans. But if she is, it will be about the finality of the day. Then she'll remember the future, that the rest of her life is calling, and there are only 500 more miles in a fire suit remaining. Her next chapter will involve fitness, cooking, promoting a happy lifestyle and living a fabulous Instagram life.

"Imagine when you leave here on Sunday, you don't have anything to do really for a couple of months," she said. "Seems pretty exciting, doesn't it? Right? That's how I feel."

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

Updated February 17, 2018

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