I first covered Danica Sue Patrick in the now-defunct Atlantic series in 2003, and found her and her overbearing father, T.J., not particularly agreeable. As she progressed through IndyCar her personality seemed to brighten a tiny bit: Unlike quite a few female drivers we’ve seen, it was clear that A: She wasn’t scared of the cars, and B: She wasn’t scared of her competitors.
Her time in IndyCars was, occasionally, impressive: She should have won the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 for Rahal-Letterman Racing. She led 19 laps, and was passed at the end by winner Dan Wheldon and two other cars, giving her a fourth-place finish.
But she was only passed because her team told her to slow down and conserve fuel. She did. But after the race, it was found that she had more than enough fuel to have won, a bitter pill still lodged in Patrick’s throat. Like many first-timers who do well at the Speedway, she assumed she’d have another shot at a win, but it never came. Still, she was anointed as The Real Deal, much like Alexander Rossi was with his fuel-saving Indy victory this year.
And Patrick did go on to win a fuel-mileage race in Japan in April, 2008, for Andretti Green, a victory that was owed her after that 2005 Indy 500 disappointment. IndyCar promptly put her on a plane and flew her to Long Beach, where she held a press conference at the site of the last Champ Car race ever, a publicity move that did not sit well with the people attached to Champ Car, who thought they deserved the stage for their farewell. But certainly that wasn’t Patrick’s fault.
As her IndyCar career wound down, I wrote some stories that were pretty critical of Patrick. Remember that 2008 Indy 500 when she and Ryan Briscoe collided in the pits, ending both their days, and Patrick stalked off to confront Briscoe before security intervened? She did the same with multiple drivers, from Wheldon to Milka Duno, and she seemed a little slow to accept the blame when something was clearly her fault.
In 2010, her popularity in IndyCar was really sagging after the Indianapolis 500, where she declared on the public address system that her car was “awful,” and insisting that her poor qualifying was “not my fault.” The crowd booed her then, and again at driver introductions: It’s considered poor form to throw your team under the bus publicly. “I've had boos over the years, but not like this,” Patrick said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. Teammate Tony Kanaan said she needed to “change her attitude.”
It was about this time that I changed my tune. This is not unusual, and I blame it on being a Libra. After years of leading the anti-Danica media, I did a 180. She became the underdog. I did interviews with her, especially about her work for COPD, a disease that took her grandmother and my father.
My stories, while not necessarily positive, were not automatically negative.
The 2011 IndyCar season ended with the grisly death of Dan Wheldon. It was obvious Patrick was done with the series, and needed a change. That change was, of course, NASCAR.
She had been dabbling in stock cars since the ARCA race at Daytona February 6, 2010. I was in her pits, listening on the radio, and it appeared that this time, she was a little afraid of the car. Her spotter continually told her to close up on the car in front of her and draft – “imagine he’s got a trailer hitch, and you’re the trailer,” he said. But it didn’t come naturally. She finished sixth, largely through attrition and the fact that she had a Sprint Cup-caliber ARCA car.
She and sponsor GoDaddy announced August 25, 2011, that she’d he driving full-time for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Xfinity Series team in 2012. She’d also be running some Cup races for Tommy Baldwin, under the auspices of Stewart-Haas. In 2013, she moved full-time to Cup and Stewart-Haas, winning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500.
Which, unfortunately, remains the highlight of her Sprint Cup career.
Despite having top-notch equipment, as she has almost all of her racing career, coming into today’s race at Pocono – actually tomorrow’s race, since it was postponed to Monday due to rain – she has run 38,749 laps, and led 37. Of 138 races, she has no top 5 finishes, and six top-10s. Her only pole was that Daytona 500 in 2013.
And in the last three years, she no longer appears to be improving. Her average start in 2014 was 22.3, her average finish was 23.7.
In 2015, her average starting spot was 22.4, her average finish 23.5.
So far in 2016, her average start was 25.8, her average finish has been 22.6. Yes, 22.6 is better than last year’s 23.5, but is that really a meaningful improvement? (This data from racing-reference.info, if you want to look for yourself.) From her Atlantic days, through IndyCar, NASCAR Xfinity and Sprint Cup, she has won just one race, that IndyCar victory in Japan.
And that’s why I’m disappointed in Danica Patrick. It’s difficult coming from open wheel racing – drivers like Sam Hornish, Jr., have proven that. Out of 167 Cup races, Hornish has three top-5s, 12 top-10s, not appreciably better than Patrick, but quite a bit of Hornish’s Cup experience has been in equipment that isn’t as good as what Stewart-Haas fields. And Hornish’s 167 races are scattered out over nine seasons, with four of those seasons consisting of two races or less.
What bothers me the most about Patrick is that she seems resigned, if not quite content, to run mid-pack. After Richmond, for instance, where she started 21st, ended up 24th, her comments were, as always, plucky and we’ll-get-em-next-time, but she never seems to get them next time. “At the end of the day, the car wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. Tough times don’t last; tough people do. And we just have to keep working at it hard to get to where we need to be.”
Patrick is 34; she pretty much needs to “get where we need to be” pretty soon. She is a conservative racer, and I respect her for that. But it’s time to start taking some chances – time to push. Or time to just give up and accept 25th-place finishes, and the paycheck that comes with it.
There is no argument that Patrick has done as much for NASCAR as NASCAR has done for her. Since NASCAR was formed in 1949, there have been plenty of female drivers, more than you think. In the seventh race in 1949, Sara Christian was fifth – the last of five cars of the 23 entered that was still running. She made $175. The NASCAR race at Hamburg Speedway in New York, August 10, 1950, had three women drivers: Christian, Louise Smith and Ann Chester. Christian was 14th, and made $50. Smith and Chester finished lower, and since they only paid through 15th place, they made nothing.
Danica Patrick is the first and only woman to consistently make a living, and a very good one, in stock car racing. She has opened the door to modern-day NASCAR for women; why no women have been able to walk through that door is not Patrick’s fault. That Patrick has survived, if not exactly thrived, is still remarkable, and a stellar accomplishment in itself. Decades from now it may be enough to get her into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But I’d sure like to see a win, or at least some top 5 finishes, before she hangs up her helmet. Maybe she’ll surprise me at Pocono tomorrow where she starts – yeah, that’s about right, given this year’s average of starting from 25.8 – from 26th. (NOTE: She finished the fog-shortened Monday race in 22nd. Her average finish this year, as mentioned, is 22.6. If nothing else, her consistency is damn near robotic.)