Over the last few months I tried to ignore the hype surrounding Danica Patrick while others in the media have speculated whether or not the open-wheel driver would make her way to NASCAR. Last week, Patrick joined Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kelley Earnhardt, Tony Eury Jr. and Kelly Bires to announce she would join JR Motorsports to race in NASCAR.
Until Patrick confirmed her intentions I did not think the speculation and rumors surrounding her were worth writing about. I have no problem with her or the fact that she is a female driver. The reason for my lack of interest in the Danica hype was the fact it was just that – hype.
In 81 starts in the Indy Racing League, Patrick scored just one win and four podium finishes. Her lone win came at the 2008 Indy Japan 300 during a fuel-mileage race in which the leaders were forced to pit. She did, however, capture 2005 Rookie of the Year honors, beating out Patrick Carpentier, Ryan Briscoe, Thomas Enge and Paul Dana.
Patrick is not the first open-wheel driver to make the transition to stock cars. Juan Pablo Montoya made the move and has found limited success, with his best season coming in 2009. Other big-name open-wheel drivers also have attempted the transition to stock cars, including IRL champion and Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr., two-time IRL champion, Indy 500 winner and winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring Dario Franchitti and CART champion and Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve. How did they fare? Hornish continues to drive in the Sprint Cup Series as an also-ran. Franchitti exited the sport without making a mark. Villeneuve lasted just two races.
Patrick is not blazing a trail for female race car drivers by making this switch. In fact, she is taking a road already paved. There have been a number of women drivers in NASCAR throughout the 60-plus years of the sport’s existence. From Ethel Flock Mobley, sister of the famous Flock brothers, to Louise Smith, whose career started in 1948, to Sara Christian, who finished fifth in a NASCAR Strictly Stock race in 1949, to Patty Moise, Shawna Robinson and now a host of young women who are cutting their teeth in NASCAR.
Even at her ARCA debut at the test session in Daytona last weekend Patrick was not the only female in the garage. Patrick was one of ten female drivers testing for the Feb. 6, 2010, season debut. Among the other female participants were Alli Owens, Leilani Munter, Milka Duno, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Michelle Theriault, Jill George, Ashley Parlett and Amber and Angela Cope – the nieces of former Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope.
This leaves the question – why all the hype surrounding someone who has not accomplished as much in her sport as some of those who paved the way? For Danica Patrick it seems the answer is her sex appeal, marketability, attitude and refusal to give into other drivers.
At a time in NASCAR when sponsors are harder to come by than wins, Patrick brings GoDaddy.com, which allows her to express her sexuality and good looks. She has also proved in the past she will not back down from confrontations with other drivers, including fellow female driver Duno. That could play well with NASCAR fans, but might not go over with those in the garage.
One of the best things going for her is the team she has joined. Working with Tony Eury Jr., Patrick will have a proven winner calling the shots atop the pit box.
"It’s great to work with her,” Eury Jr. said on ARCAracing.com. “She’s got a great personality. She likes having fun but she knows how to be serious at the same time. Just how quick she’s adapted to the cars because there’s a lot more travel, there’s a lot more movement, the cars are a lot heavier than the cars she’s typically been around and they’ve got less downforce so the way she’s picked up on it she’s done a great job.”
Like many who have come before her, Patrick will have her chance to prove her naysayers wrong. During Sunday’s final session in Daytona, her No. 88 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet posted the fifth fastest time. However, hers was not the fastest of the female participants. That honor went to Alli Owens.
If you remember last year’s ARCA race at Daytona, it was a demolition derby with a little bit of racing. Six cautions and one red flag marred the event and sent three drivers to the hospital. Patrick will be in middle of the action come Feb. 6 and with her inexperience in a stock car and the pack racing that takes place at Daytona, there is no telling what will happen.