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Deegan begins march to NASCAR’s big leagues

New driver on the rise ...

FILE – In this May 31, 2019, file photo, Hailie Deegan drives down the front stretch during the ARCA Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa. It’s a critical year for Deegan, the up-and-coming 18-year-old with an eye on making it to NASCAR’s biggest stage. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — There was nothing special about Hailie Deegan’s sports car debut as she raced around the road course last month at Daytona International Speedway in a feeder series. She was just an 18-year-old Ford factory driver trying to get seat time.

That she’s a woman was also not of any particular interest; the big league Rolex 24 at Daytona the very next day included a lineup of only female drivers and sports car racing for years has had women competing in its events.

What was compelling is that Ford has bet heavily enough on Deegan to let her give sports cars a try. She was teamed at Daytona with Chase Briscoe, who has his own strong Ford backing, and the experience was a chance for Deegan to show how quickly she can get up to speed.

“I just feel like I know a lot more about racing than I did before and that’s why I’m here and supposed to be doing,” Deegan said.

Now she is back at the speedway with a new team, new manufacturer support and a full-time ride in the ARCA Series. Her stock car debut at Daytona comes Saturday in ARCA’s season-opening race, the kickoff event of Speedweeks.

Deegan until December had been part of a crowded development program with Toyota, but she made the switch to Ford and with it comes immediate opportunities. She got a full-time ARCA ride with DGR-Crosley, could race in NASCAR’s Truck Series before the end of the year and Ford offered her seat time in sports cars.

She won three K&N Series races over the last two seasons and now her progression to the big leagues is officially underway.

“This is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels,” said Deegan. “If we can do good this year, I feel I can get more people behind me so we can go in the top three level series (of NASCAR), and have sponsors that want to stay with me full time while I’m there.

“My goal is to win a few races in the ARCA Series, which is going to be hard. There are a lot of good guys, good cars this year.”

Unlike her stint in sports cars, Deegan’s gender will be widely discussed when she is running stock cars. In fact, it is the reason many people follow her career.

Deegan is pretty and popular and has a strong social media presence where she portrays herself as a hard-working, thrill-seeking, up-and-coming racer. All of this could make her the next big female driver since Danica Patrick, who retired in 2018.

That specific comparison is a difficult and potentially awkward one for Deegan — or anyone else.

Patrick absolutely inspired a generation of girls and although she won just one race between IndyCar and NASCAR, she set records as the highest-finishing female driver in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, the only woman to lead laps in both, and the only female pole-winner at Daytona.

Patrick was also adept at marketing her brand and had longtime sponsors that lengthened her career. She had supporters who admired her business acumen and determination, and critics who felt Patrick didn’t deserve the accolades, attention or funding to be in a competitive ride.

Deegan understands this background and realizes she must strike a delicate balance.

“When it comes to marketing, I don’t want to try to play the girl part to get sponsors, but there are brands that could tie with me that can’t tie with guys. There is opportunity,” she said. “It’s not necessarily, ‘I’m a girl, I don’t want to do this type of thing.’ It’s more like being a girl, I could have more opportunities to get sponsors. More businesses that will work with me because there are some brands that can’t work with guys.

“I think there’s that aspect of being a girl that does help. But once you get in the car, it don’t matter. No one knows. Most of the time I have the most aggressive-looking, guy-looking car on the track.”

Indeed, one of her main supporters to date has been Monster Energy, which has Deegan clad in black and neon green, and driving a car with the same menacing look.

She is from California, wears her hats with a flat brim and does her best to be one of the guys. But Deegan also grew up around racing. Her father, Brian Deegan, is the most decorated motocross rider in X Games History. He is also a founding member of what the motocross community calls “the Metal Mulisha” and his successful 360 in competition was named the “Mulisha Twist.”

Deegan has seen toughness up-close her entire life and is ready to show what she learned.

“I don’t think I’m soft and delicate. I’m a very straightforward, brutally honest person,” she said. “I don’t take any BS. That’s how I’ve always been. And I grew up around all guys, all my friends are guys. I’ve always been around my dad’s hard-working, really tough scene. That’s what I’ve always been used to.”

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