THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Bust, bum, bikini: Patrick speeds to stardom... on looks

Danica Patrick at the Tribeca Film Festival.
David Shankbone

Call me crazy, but third place isn't exactly the pinnacle of success. Oh, it's not bad, and a bronze medal at the Olympics is nothing to sneeze at, but third place as a measure of greatness? I'd never heard of such a thing– at least not before this past weekend and the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500.

You know the old saying, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades"? If you believe that, you're a dying breed. These days, being an "also-ran" is nearly as profitable as actually winning a contest. 

When the L.A. Times reported on Danica Patrick's third-place finish in this last Indy 500, the headline proclaimed Patrick's image was "shifting from celebrity to ‘good race car driver'" and even included a picture of Patrick in her driving gear. It was a nice change from the usual ski-bunny type pictures papers usually run. apparently didn't get the memo though– the only pictures of Patrick on their homepage were culled from their Swimsuit Edition.

It's all very confusing. Are we supposed to take Danica Patrick seriously?

Mike Lopresti, USA Today's Indy reporter, skipped over the race winner, Helio Castroneves, and moved right to Patrick. I fear that Lopresti, like so many males before him, allowed his– shall we say– passion, to get the better of him. When writing about Patrick, Lopresti's sweet words began like a love letter and ended like a seedy men's magazine ("Calmer, older, wiser" to "Seen her latest commercial?" in just three seconds.) 

I don't think I'm being arbitrary. Could it be imagined that the ultimate homage to the male ego, ESPN, would headline a sports video with "An Intimate Look at ..."? Well, that's the Danica Patrick coverage ESPN offered on May 23, the day before the race. And here I thought ESPN was only intimate with Roger Goodell and the Red Sox.

On second thought, why should ESPN be intimate with Danica Patrick? She's seen to it everyone else is. Those pictures on the Sports Illustrated website? They come from not one but two Swimsuit Editions. If you happen to care more about Patrick's mind than her body, you can always go to Playboy for your fix. The latest issue of the magazine includes an in-depth interview, featuring such hard-hitting questions as "Is it hard to be both sexy and a racer?"'

A more apt question might be, is it easier to be a racer if you're sexy? Evidently, the answer is a resounding yes. Without her spreads in FHM and Sports Illustrated, without her just-shy-of-pornographic commercials for, Patrick would be little more than an annoyance and a novelty– a little girl who keeps wearing out her welcome on the racetrack.

Anyone know the name Sarah Fisher? I didn't think so.

Long before she ever won an Indy event (just last year, as a matter of fact), Patrick was setting the standard for women in racing. In 2007, two years after her first Indy 500, former model and Venezuelan native Milka Duno qualified as well. In no time at all, the former naval engineer was baring her cleavage for the world to see. 

And why not? That's how a female racer gets it done, right? Especially when she's considered a slow and dangerous driver.

Patrick is nobody's fool. Like any woman worth her salt, she's learned to manipulate her way to the top, and she's also learned how to make men like it. Just as Marilyn Monroe cultivated a ditzy, dumb, naïve image to exploit the drooling males around her, Patrick has set herself up as a Playmate from day one. Despite any protests to the contrary, it was all part of Patrick's master plan: come off like a sexual plaything, and there's nowhere to go but up. 

So that's the answer to the mystery. That's why male sportswriters everywhere are falling all over themselves to proclaim Patrick's third place finish a Hall of Fame performance. Third place or not, the bust, the bum, the bathing suits, and the commercials– they all add up to one thing: greatness.

It's a story as old as time itself.