It's been no secret in recent years that NASCAR attendance has been down, so Danica Patrick capturing the pole position for Sunday's Daytona 500 couldn't have come at a better time for stock car racing.
Patrick's Sunday qualifying lap of 196.434 mph around Daytona's high-banked tri-oval was .33 mph faster than second fastest qualifier Jeff Gordon. Patrick and Gordon race for different teams - she's with Stewart-Haas Racing and he's with Hendrick Motorsports - but both drivers' cars were powered by Chevrolet engines prepared by the Hendrick team.
Winning the pole position at Daytona is an impressive feat in and of itself, but it offers little in the way of a race-day advantage for Patrick other than at the start of the 200 lap contest. She and Gordon are guaranteed starts in the contest, while 45 other drivers must compete in two 100-mile qualifying races Thursday to secure a starting slot.
Last year, Patrick started at the very back of the pack after qualifying 29th. She went to the back after crashing in one of the 100 milers. It was a dismal day for the first woman ever to win an Indy car race, as she became involved in somebody else's wreck on the third lap.
But this year has been different from the start, thanks largely to her joining the team headed by three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. Stewart has been compared to the fiery A.J. Foyt, who in his day was a hard-charger who excelled in Indy cars, as well as stock cars and sports cars.
Besides becoming the first driver ever to win the Indy 500 four times, Foyt also won the Daytona 500 in 1972 and in 1967 he became the only driver ever to win the Indy 500 and LeMans 24 Hour in the same year.
The often blunt-spoken Stewart won an Indy car championship before moving to NASCAR where he's been in the front rank of drivers for a decade, winning the season championship for a third time in 2011.
More recently, he's become an owner-driver, qualifying fifth fastest this year. Ryan Newman, the 2008 winner, qualified a third Stewart-Haas entry fourth fastest.
Now Stewart - and NASCAR - appear set to benefit from a flood of positive media coverage following Patrick's pole performance.
It couldn't come too soon for NASCAR, which has seen TV ratings and attendance slip dramatically from a decade ago. Barely 90,000 fans reportedly bought tickets for the Talladega 500 last year, for example, compared to nearly twice that many who showed up routinely in the early 2000s.
Several big name sponsors have left the stock car circuit and the dominance of one driver - Jimmie Johnson, who won an amazing five consecutive NASCAR season points championships between 2006 and 2010 - apparently put a lot of fans to sleep.
As a result, some marketing experts have worried that NASCAR would suffer a fate similar to that of professional tennis in the 1970s, which saw a momentary surge of public, media and sponsor interest, followed by years of obscurity.
Things got so bad that just before last year's final race, Richard Petty lamented to The Wall Street Journal that "we're just sort of keeping our head above water."
Petty, stock car racing's long-time king and a seven-time winner of the Daytona 500, added that "we feel if we can survive, we'll have a base to build on, but something's got to happen in the next couple of seasons."
Patrick could be that something, a fact Petty was quick to recognize, telling reporters Sunday that Patrick's performance would "put us on the front page of the newspapers, not just the front page of the sports section."
Being in the media eye is nothing new for Patrick who in 2005 became the first woman ever to lead the Indy 500, ultimately finishing fourth after running low on fuel and having to slow down during the final 10 laps. She did win Rookie of the Year honors.
She also became the first woman ever to win an Indy car event, taking the lead on the last corner of the Indy Japan 300 in 2008 when Helio Castroneves slowed with an empty gas tank.
But otherwise Patrick struggled for four years on the Indy car circuit, often running way behind the leaders. But for several years, Indy car interest, TV coverage and race attendance zoomed, largely due to Patrick.
Her move to NASCAR initially occasioned skepticism among some motorsports critics who predicted she would find it extremely difficult to go from Indy's lighter 225 mph open-wheelers to the heavier, less powerful and less responsive stock cars.
Regardless of how she performs in Sunday's race, however, she has clearly established that, given good equipment, she can run up front with the rest of the boys.