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 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 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 43-year-old 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 career altogether after returning to IndyCar and competing in the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Peyton Manning, the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback will serve as honorary pace car driver for the Daytona 500. Manning will be behind the wheel of the Toyota pace car and lead the 40-car field to the green flag to start “The Great American Race” on Sunday.

Manning retired from the NFL following the 2015 season, which he led Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl victory over Carolina.

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