Patrick has legit shot in Daytona 500: Waltrip

Auto racing driver Danica Patrick walks to an interview during NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, in Daytona Beach, Fla.
AP Photo/John Raoux

The green flags will wave Sunday at the Daytona 500, NASCAR's Super Bowl and season opener.

And Danica Patrick, the most successful female race car driver in history (and a sexy media star), will be making her debut in what's called "America's Great Race," as she begins her first full year on the NASCAR circuit.

She had a frightening moment Thursday when her car slammed into a wall during a qualifying run.

But she's OK and will be driving her backup car in the big event.

Nearly 200,000 stock car racing fans will fill the Daytona International Speedway for the race's 54th running.

It features wheel-to-wheel racing at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. And, it's one of the most popular televised sporting events of the year, watched by nearly 30 million viewers.

Eight former winners are on the starting grid, including 21-year old Trevor Bane, who the race last year in only his second career start.

But former NASCAR champ Darrell Waltrip, author of "Sundays Will Never Be the Same," says Patrick "has sort of stolen all the headlines. She didn't do herself any harm (Friday) by winning the pole position for the preliminary race (Saturday). But she'll be the third woman to ever start the Daytona 500. And she's probably the first to have a bona fide chance at actually winning the race. So she's a big story."

Waltrip, who'll be on the announcing team at the race for Fox Sports, added that, "Dale (Ernhardt) Jr., our other big superstar," will be competing. "He's got a great race car. So, this is setting up ... this is gonna be a good one. This may be the best one we've had since maybe 1979."

Waltrip says he was "fascinated" by Patrick's actions before her crash Thursday. "When we had the in-car camera," he said, "she's headed for that wall at 180 miles an hour. And she had the presence of mind to let go of the steering wheel and put her hands up. That's an old Indy car thing, so you don't break your wrist when the car hits the wall. You know what I'd have been doing? Ahhhhh! "

But Patrick is only one of many who could hit the finish line first, Waltrip noted, saying, "The qualifying races are sometimes indicative of who has a good car for 150 miles. But this is a 500-mile grind. And the guys with the most experience - they seem to be able to lay back and save their car and not get themselves in some of those wrecks that we have, these big wrecks we have. And they're there at the end.

"People like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart and (Ernhardt) Junior. And there's a number of other veterans. But we've got some really strong, young drivers, too. We've got Marcus Ambrose. He's an Australian guy driving for Richard Petty. He's got a great car this week. And some of the Toyotas that my brother has. ... the last ten Dayton 500s, we've had ten different winners. So here you go. You pick one!"