DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Danica Patrick kissed her NASCAR career goodbye with a good luck smooch from NFL star and new boyfriend Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers put his hands on Patrick's shoulders and leaned in for the kiss just before she raced for the final time at the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Patrick had hugged and fist-bumped family and crew, pulled her hair into a ponytail and slid into her Chevy.
Her final NASCAR start fittingly came on the sport's biggest stage - in front of 101,000 fans at the Daytona 500.
Patrick was in good spirits as she approached her car that had been swallowed by security, fans, media, and members of Team Danica that made it futile to find a spot near the scrum. She posed for pictures with Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, who was all smiles in a tight blue T-shirt and jeans before the race and watched from the pits. The starry-eyed sweethearts brought a dose of A-list gravitas to a pit road scene that was more fitting for a red carpet.
"Who's that girl with Aaron Rodgers?!" one fan cracked.
Funny, but all eyes at Daytona were on Danica.
Patrick opened the first leg of the ballyhooed "Danica Double" on Sunday. She'll make a return in May to IndyCar and race the Indianapolis 500 before Patrick calls it quits on her racing career.
"When she first started at 10, I knew about two months into it, I told my wife she's going to change racing. I could see it," said Patrick's father, T.J.
Patrick was a driver at peace with her decision and ready to transition into the next chapter of her life.
She tweeted, "Ready to go!!!!!!" with a green heart emoji hours before the race at Daytona International Speedway. On Instagram , it was a photo of her eyes peering through her race helmet with the caption, "Going to have to keep my eyes wide open today in the race. These cars and guys are going to do crazy things."
Patrick has moved on from both NASCAR and longtime boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Patrick and Stenhouse, once NASCAR's it couple, used to sit next to each other at the pre-race meeting. This week, the exes were kept separated on media availability schedules.
Patrick posted a photo on Instagram on Saturday of her and Rodgers with her family at the beach. She wrote "Doing Daytona with all the people that mean the most to me." The fitness fanatic and author of a workout book also posted a pic of rows of Krispy Kreme doughnuts with the caption, "pre Daytona 500 prep."
She leaves the sport winless in 190 career Cup starts, a total more than double the total number (78) of the 15 other female drivers who made at least one start.
Her influence as a female trailblazer will serve as her true lasting impact in racing.
Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron , the honorary starter for the Daytona 500, said she was cheering for Patrick. The 35-year-old Patrick is the only woman to start the Daytona 500 from the pole, lead laps in the race and is the highest-finishing female in the 60 years of the race.
"As a woman, that just seems pretty incredible," Theron said Sunday. "For me to be able to witness her last race, that feels very special. The girl in me is secretly obviously cheering for her. I just love that even my kids were just really impressed that a girl was racing cars today, too. I think that's such a good thing and we need more of that. Hopefully, we'll have more of that enter this culture."
NASCAR recognized Patrick in the pre-race meeting in honor of her accomplishments in motorsports.
Patrick never had a top-five finish for Stewart-Hass Racing. She never won another pole after her breakthrough at the 2013 Daytona 500. She never had much success but carried the flag as one of NASCAR's only true mainstream stars. But as results sank, so did interest in funding her ride. Sponsors bailed, cash dried up and she was out of a job.
Sunday's race is one final ride in a bright-green No. 7 Chevrolet for the former GoDaddy girl. Her car is fielded by Premium Motorsports and Tony Eury Jr., who guided her transition from IndyCar to NASCAR that began in 2010, is the crew chief.
Patrick is as much a brand these days as she is an athlete. Her love life, Super Bowl ads and racy photo shoots were hot topics that generated more enthusiasm than her actual career accomplishments. She launched the clothing line "Warrior by Danica Patrick" after participating in the design process. She developed the workouts and meal plans for her book, "Pretty Intense: The 90-Day Mind, Body and Food Plan that will absolutely Change Your Life." Patrick is still a bankable celebrity and should have her pick of any future projects.
She accidentally revealed this week she'll drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in her final Indy 500.
Then she rides off for good.
At Daytona, dad had some final words of advice.
"I tell her every week go out there, I love you, have fun," T.J. Patrick said. "Once it stops being fun, then you need to get out. I think that's what it got to be."
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