This is a difficult blog for me to write. For many years I’ve been following Danica Patrick in both IndyCar and NASCAR. It was thrilling to see the close calls and competitive racing she had in IndyCar, along with the eventual win she had at Motegi. It was exciting when she announced that she was going to try out NASCAR in what was then known as the Nationwide Series. She had an exciting debut in an ARCA race, followed up by her first NASCAR start at Daytona. She had a near pole win one year, followed up by an actual pole win at Daytona the next year. Victory Lane eluded her, but she was on a part time schedule to start and hey, many others had come from open wheel racing to NASCAR and hadn’t done nearly as well.
She’s had a few races at Daytona in the Nationwide Series that were notable, but, as restrictor plate races often go, she was caught up in wrecks often not of her own doing. Still there was hope.
When the announcement was made that she would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing and following in the steps of Tony Stewart and working with his team and former crew chief Greg Zippadelli the hope continued. She would have excellent equipment, a strong sponsor, teammates in Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman that both had open wheel backgrounds and a solid crew behind her. Again, a part time schedule to start at some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, just to get her some seat time. We as fans were frustrated when she was running at the back of the pack, literally qualifying dead last in many cases and running laps down if she wasn’t wrecked out. However, we were assured that this was all part of the plan. She was learning, getting time in the car and learning the system. Turmoil on her Nationwide team with her crew chief getting fired and the team taking on a new direction didn’t help matters much, but the season ended and she was moving on to bigger and better things.
Her first full year Sprint Cup start at Daytona was interesting. She won the pole (which many say was rigged) and drove her car to the back of the pack in her Duel race to prevent losing her starting spot. She didn’t lead the first lap of the race, although she did eventually lead a lap, making her one of 13 to lead laps at the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. After running 3rd throughout most of the race, she got shuffled back in the last lap and finished 8th. Not bad, so there was hope. But Daytona isn’t like the rest of the season.
She would go on to run pretty awful with the exception of Martinsville, where she raced her way up to 12th. Otherwise though, she was in the low 30s, high 20s, finishing laps down and not competitive at all. Towards the end of her first full season, her team was swapped with Kurt Busch’s team and she was given a new crew and crew chief, as well as the hand me down cars that they were salvaging from when Ryan Newman was with the team.
Her year with Daniel Knost as crew chief again was disappointing, but with flashes of decent finishes. Communication was a struggle, whereas in the offseason it was thought to work well with her technical background coming from IndyCar and his engineering mindset. While she lagged behind in the 20s and 30s, getting caught up in wrecks with guys like Landon Cassill and David Gilliland, Kurt Busch and her former team were at the front of the field and winning races.
She is on yet another crew chief, and her pit crew, which had won the fastest team in an internal SHR pit crew competition, was swapped out again. The change is noticeable, because any progress she may make on the track is lost by horrible pit stops and mistakes. Billy Scott seems unable to unload with a fast car, tweaking it to make it better, and instead rolls off 30th in practice and has to make huge swings to try to the car to live up to the potential of the equipment.
As fans, we are frustrated, especially when Kevin Harvick is one of the fastest on the track each week and winning races and championships. Kurt Busch is winning races and contending for championships. Tony Stewart isn’t doing so well, but his personal struggles off track with injuries and legal issues can be contributed to that as well. After coming back from a back injury he’s running better than Danica has all season long. We hang our hats on the little things though, like the top 10s at Kansas and Atlanta, only to have them crushed when she returns back to the same track. We get hopeful that experience and Hendrick power will propel her to a win at Daytona or Talladega, or that her road racing experience will help her at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, but we’re consistently disappointed.
After winning the Most Popular Driver Award in the Nationwide Series she’s not done much from a fan standpoint in the Sprint Cup Series. She’s won the fan vote a couple of times for the All Star race, save for the time she lost it to Josh Wise, but the entry has mostly been a waste. Her experiences at both the All Star race and the Sprint Unlimited during Speedweeks have been lackluster to say the least. She runs last, save for the cars that blow up or get wrecked and isn’t competitive at all.
I don’t like to agree with the detractors, but they are right. She’s no All Star. She’s done nothing in NASCAR to be worthy of that moniker.
I understand that NASCAR likes to have her in the races because she brings in a fan base. It’s good to have diversity and she is still the only woman to have won a closed circuit race in a major national series, which makes her the best female in the sport. However, she still needs to perform to be in the seat and thusfar, she hasn’t earned it.
I want her to succeed. I want her to win. I want to see a turnaround similar to Dale Jr., where he got paired up with a crew chief who demanded more of him and asked him if he wanted to be Dale Jr. or if he wanted to be a winning race car driver. I want to see selfies in Victory Lane rather than headstands and puppy pictures posted to Instagram. I don’t want to see her settle for 20th place as a good day. I want her competitiveness on the track to match her popularity. I want her to stop being a celebrity and really focus on being a racer.
I want her to truly *be* an All Star. I’m not giving up on her, because I think that as a true fan you have to be there when your driver/team/player sucks as well as when they are doing well, but it’s hard to defend her week in and week out when we see the same thing over and over again.