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story.lead_photo.caption Danica Patrick climbs from her car Sunday after time trials for the Daytona 500. Sunday’s 500 will be Patrick’s final NASCAR start, leaving 44-year-old Jennifer Jo Cobb (Truck Series) as the only female driver in the NASCAR’s three top series.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica Patrick and Natalie Decker shared a hug and a little chitchat as they crossed paths at Daytona International Speedway last week.

They wished each other luck in their respective races during the brief exchange.

Decker probably could have tossed in a hearty "thank you."

Although Patrick's NASCAR success never matched the attention she received for standing out in a male-dominated sport, her six-year stint in the Cup Series seemingly set the groundwork for other women to follow.

"There's so many younger girls that are fast -- they're like 10 years old, 12 years old -- and they're racing everything and anything," said the 19-year-old Decker, who started on the pole and finished fifth in the ARCA Series season opener at Daytona. "Dirt cars, go-karts, full-size cars already. They're coming up and they're going to be here faster than you know it."

Probably not fast enough to avoid having an all-male Cup lineup in 2019.

But several female drivers believe Patrick will end up playing as prominent a role in NASCAR history as trailblazers Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson.

"Let's face it: Racing has been a man's sport for many, many years, and there's been very few women that have ever made it to the top level," said Leilani Munter, a part-time driver in the ARCA Series since 2010. "Of those, very few girls have actually had an opportunity to run full time. To get a win, you need to be out there on a regular basis. For me, the biggest challenge has always been finding sponsorship."

That's the case for every driver, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity.

A lack of sponsorship ultimately cost Patrick, once among the most marketable drivers in motorsports, her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing last season. Patrick, 35, is making her final NASCAR start at the Daytona 500 and will end her racing career altogether after returning to IndyCar and competing in the Indianapolis 500 in May.

"I think Danica being out there definitely has planted the seed in a lot of little girls across the country that are now thinking about becoming the next female NASCAR driver," Munter, 43, said. "There's going to be a lot more women coming into the sport."

There are no women in the second-tier Xfinity Series this season, and Jennifer Jo Cobb, 44, is the only woman racing full time in the Truck Series.

The 2017-18 NASCAR Next class includes a female driver for the fourth consecutive year. Hailie Deegan, 16, is the youngest in the group, which is identified by a panel of industry insiders as the next wave of drivers with a chance at becoming NASCAR stars, and will challenge for rookie of the year honors in the West division of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series.

Deegan will try to do what none of her predecessors has done: win in the developmental series. Kenzie Ruston Hemric is winless in 44 K&N starts. Nicole Behar is winless in 34 starts. And Julia Landauer is winless in 30 starts.

Patrick took a different path, making the jump to NASCAR after seven years and one victory in the open-wheel IndyCar Series.

Patrick said the "trickle-down effect" from her career "is what it is," declining to delve too deep into her long-term impact on racing.

"You have to get a team behind you, to believe in you," she said. "Maybe it's a little harder because women have not proved themselves as much as men, but every driver has to prove themselves to their team, so there's still that responsibility, and that challenge is still at hand for every single driver to find a group that believes in them and gives them what they need, puts them in the right scenario.

"Perhaps it's a little bit harder for me just based on history, but I've had great opportunities as a driver. Some times have been better than others, but that could probably be said for every single driver out there."

Daytona Speedweeks

DAILY SCHEDULE

All times Central

THURSDAY

Cup: Can-Am Duel 1, 6 p.m. (FS1)

Cup: Can-Am Duel 2, 8 p.m. (FS1)

FRIDAY

Trucks: Qualifying, 3:30 p.m. (FS1)

Trucks: NextEra 250, 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

SATURDAY

Xfinity: Qualifying, 8:30 a.m. (FS1)

Xfinity: PowerShares 300, 1:30 p.m. (FS1)

SUNDAY

Cup: Daytona 500, 1:30 p.m. (Fox)

Sports on 02/14/2018

Print Headline: Search on for the next Danica

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