Whether it be current drivers, past drivers, crew members, media members or NASCAR fans, everyone seems to have a differing opinion on Danica Patrick.
Many enjoy having a female “trail-blazer” in a sport predominantly dominated by men, while others see Danica as simply a money making machine, with no true driving skill.
Recently, NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty chimed in on the seemingly never ending, “is Danica good for NASCAR,” question. Petty’s comments, seemed to straggle on both sides of the argument, however, it speaks volumes to the split that seemingly divides the NASCAR fan base as a whole.
Petty’s first comments about Danica were in regards to her ever winning a NASCAR race; he simply said, “(She would win a race) if everyone else stayed home. If she would have been a male, nobody would ever know if she showed up to the racetrack.” These comments come several months, after Richard’s son, Kyle, offered similar criticism in an interview regarding Patrick’s transition to NASCAR in 2010. Kyle stated that Danica, “is not a racecar driver; she’s just a marketing machine.”
However, Petty did not say that Patrick is bad for NASCAR. He said from a public relations standpoint, “More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.” A typical NASCAR race weekend features many ads for sponsors including Patrick’s GoDaddy.Com. Seemingly every commercial break during a race, or even advertisements around speedways feature Patrick’s signature, face, or some sort of endorsement.
When evaluating Patrick’s marketability, and predominance on any given race weekend, little doubt is cast on the fact that she is helpful for NASCAR, who has seen increasingly dwindling attendance at tracks, and television ratings since 2004. The only other driver who matches, and exceeds Danica in terms of marketability is none other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr, the reigning most popular driver for the last 13 seasons.
However, are Richard Petty’s comments about Danica Patrick never winning a race truly justifiable?
After competing part-time in 2012, and full time in 2013 in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide series, her average finish is 21.1. Dario Franchitti, a fellow Indy Car who attempted the move to NASCAR’s average finish was 20.6, compared to Patrick’s. Patrick has led more laps (5) than Franchitti’s lone lap led, as well as posted more career top 10’s. However, Franchitti went back to the IZOD Indy Car series after only 10 races in NASCAR, and with a broken ankle from a violent crash at Talladega.
Historically, drivers who make the jump from Indy Car to NASCAR seem to not meet the expectations that are set before them.
While three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart made this transition seamlessly, he is an exception to Indy Car drivers under performing. In terms of Patrick never winning a race, this idea seems far-fetched. Qualifying first at Daytona, and leading laps seem to be on the contrary to Petty’s comments; however, the consistency of Patrick’s performance on track seems to be a detriment to her winning a race.
Last season, Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, led five laps, and finished eighth. However, the following week at Phoenix, she started 40th, and finished 39th after crashing out of the race. These consistency issues are a microcosm of Patrick’s 2013 season; a race that shows promise and progress followed by a race that fails to meet expectations.
2014 marks Danica’s second full-time season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Typically, drivers will improve as tracks become more familiar, the handling of the race cars become more manageable, and the drivers’ racing styles become more predictable. Patrick’s on-track performance can certainly improve this season; she has teammates Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch, who have all won multiple NASCAR races and Championships to lean on for advice.
However, as far as Danica winning, “if everyone else stayed home?” She could very well be standing in victory lane at the end of next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The unpredictability of the races at Daytona and Talladega have produced several first-time winners over the past few decades; next Sunday could be another historic page in NASCAR’s history book if Patrick can pull of a win.