In her 50th race, Danica Patrick, the speed world's golden girl, had a golden ride.
Nursing her fuel tank so that she had a few extra RPMs when she needed them, she flew by Helio Castroneves on the high side just a few laps from the finish and cruised to victory in the rain-delayed Indy Japan 300 over the weekend, thus making history as the first woman to win a major auto race.
For Patrick, the whirlwind is just beginning. In an interview on ESPN after the race she said she had initially intended to spend an evening enjoying Tokyo but that winning Saturday's race changed her plans. She had to hustle to catch a flight back to the United States for whatever awaits being the first woman to glide under a checkered flag in a major race.
As even casual sports fans know, Patrick was already a pretty hot marketing vehicle for the obvious reasons. Sports is entertainment, and Patrick has movie star good looks. Like a handful of other female sports celebrities, she has blended sex appeal with genuine competitive skills to stand out in a crowded sports marketing landscape.
Now she has something more. She's a winner, like a Mary Lou Retton or a Marion Jones before the fall.
And you wonder how long it will be until she hears and heeds racing's siren call - NASCAR.
As an open-wheel driver, Patrick gets to be on the big stage every Memorial Day weekend in the Indianapolis 500, but other than that, even a merged open-wheel circuit runs its races in the looming shadow of the Sprint Cup.
An impressive list of open-wheel stars has already made the jump: Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve. Each is an Indianapolis 500 winner but has had mixed results running with NASCAR's big dogs.
However, as much of a marketing juggernaut as Patrick can be without changing a thing - her image is already on an AirTran Boeing 717-200, and her victory was commemorated with "AirTranica Day" yesterday - imagine the money that would follow if she races in NASCAR with any kind of success. She considered such a move in 2006 before signing a multiyear deal with Andretti Green Racing.
But Patrick has a lot of good reasons to stay where she is. She's backed by a supportive team with considerable resources in Andretti Green. Last year, she had three top-three finishes in open-wheel racing. And now, the breakthrough in Japan.
Patrick has plenty of attractive options, and that's what winning will do.