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Disappointing finish, but Danica shows she belongs

Monday - 2/25/2013, 5:14pm  ET

Danica Patrick cross the start/finish line to take the lead shortly before the halfway point of the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- 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
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