February 18…a day that will live in infamy for all racing fans. It was the day everything changed. Safety rocketed to the forefront and hopefully, Dale Earnhardt Sr. will be the last driver to die in a Sprint Cup race car.
When I was the NASCAR columnist at Yahoo! Sports about 100 years ago, I had the privilege of working as a writer at the Indianapolis 500 every year. I’d been deeply involved in the open wheel/Indy Car world, both online and on television for more than a decade, so it was a natural for me to work that event. I had the honor of working with some of the greatest open wheel racers of the past 50 years.
I also had to work with Danica Patrick during her tenure in Indy Cars. And while I’ll not go into detail here about her demeanor during those years, nor how the Indy Racing League made her into something more than she was, Patrick’s years as an Indy Car driver are of public record and I’ll leave it up to you to make a decision as to the mark she made in an open wheel race car.
My assessment of her performances, both on and off the track were, quite simply put, brutal. I watched her race into the top ten, find a comfortable pace and then let attrition take place. As a result, she often finished in the top five without making a pass on track. Even when she won a race (in Japan), I wrote what it really was — a fuel mileage victory. I received hundreds of ugly emails after that, including a few threats.
All the time I was writing about her, I still believe that I was fair in my assessment of her performance, all the while trying my best not to let her on track accomplishments be jaded by my interactions with her as a member of the media.
Patrick had several solid outings in the Indianapolis 500, and nearly won.
Then, she had a very bad season with Andretti, when his race cars, for want of a better word, were just plain crap. The following season, she announced she was leaving Indy Cars for NASCAR.
And here we are, three years later and auto racing’s most well-known female driver will start on the pole for the most prestigious stock car race in the world. Did she get “The Call?” as legend would have it in years past, when NASCAR boss Bill France and then later his son, would supposedly make a call to a driver telling him that the fix was in and that they were to be the star of the upcoming race.
Or did she really earn her front row starting position?
The Danica Patrick of Indy Cars is not the Danica Patrick of NASCAR. Although her NASCAR Nationwide Series tenure reveals that she still runs mid-pack and lets attrition take place, she has also shown that she is a fast learner. She’s been able to take many of the skills learned in open wheel racing and successfully merge them with the skills needed to wheel a 3400 lb. stock car. Running a steady and fast line around a race track with little deviation is one of them. One only needs to watch the “ghost car” video of Patrick’s pole winning lap versus her front row mate — four-time Cup champion (and three-time Daytona 500 winner) Jeff Gordon’s lap — in very similarly prepared cars and it becomes clear that she ran a tighter line into Turn 3, and made a smoother, freer exit from Turn 4. Those slight variations, measured in thousandths of a second, made the difference between winning the pole and running second.
Her team boss Tony Stewart was impressed. And so was I. She was given a fast car, capable of winning the pole and she did her job. It was just that simple.
This, however, is not Indy Cars, where every weekend the field has maybe about a half dozen real threats to win and racing into the top ten isn’t that difficult. In the Sprint Cup Series, even with a good car, racing into the top 20 is a challenge. It is an extremely tough sport. And it’s definitely a boy’s club, even more so than in Indy Cars. It is the last major motorsport to have a woman break through and succeed on a level equal to the men with whom she is competing. I believe Patrick can be that woman. She is smart, passionate and mean, requisite skills to be successful in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
As for her off-track demeanor, it too appears to be better in NASCAR. She is far more gracious to the NASCAR media, which could easily wipe the floor with her given her narcissistic attitude and that oft-smug smile.
So while some may see Patrick’s pole win and accompanying media blitz as a much needed lift for a sport that arguably needs it, others will see it as as sign of a coming apocalypse. The beginning of the end.
NASCAR is changing. Many of its well-known drivers will be making their farewell tours in five years. There is a new group of drivers fighting their way to the front. Patrick is one of them. Names like Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney will become household names. Stay with this sport, my friends. It’s going to continue to get very good over the next few years as older drivers fight to secure their legend before leaving the sport and others, new to the sport, fight to make their name in it.
If she stays out of trouble this Sunday, Patrick might win the Daytona 500. I can easily see her boss helping her, at the expense of his own win, in much the same way another team owner once worked to help one of his drivers win the 500 – on that unforgettable Sunday afternoon more than a dozen years ago.