At Daytona International Speedway on July 1, Danica Patrick headed to victory lane for the second time in her NASCAR Cup Series career. Also for the second time, she was celebrating a victory in a race she didn’t win.
If you enjoy watching awards show as much as I do, you’re familiar with the routine. Each award generally involves five nominees, and when their category rolls around, cameras zoom in on their faces as they pretend not to appear anxious while they wait for the winner to be announced.
It is a cringe-worthy moment, as one nominee – now a winner — is legitimately thrilled, while the others wear forced smiles and pretend they aren’t bitterly disappointed.
This is kind of similar to the end of a NASCAR race, as the winner heads to victory lane and finishers two through five are held on pit road for live interviews, where they acknowledge the efforts of their team members before hightailing it out of there as quickly as possible.
Since the November 2011 announcement that she would be competing in the NASCAR Cup Series, sharing a Tommy Baldwin Racing car in an alliance with with Stewart-Haas Racing, Danica Patrick’s popularity exponentially exploded.
Many people thought that NASCAR Nation might reject her, but in fact, quite the opposite was true. In a sport that continually struggles with the challenges of an aging fan base, she was the bridge that connected new fans – most of them young females – with the sport of NASCAR.
Before she ever turned a lap in a stock car, Patrick had proven that she was much more than just a pretty face. In 2005, she finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500 after leading 19 laps. In 2008, she became the first woman to win an Indy Car race when she claimed the winner’s trophy in Japan. In 2013 – as a rookie, no less — she won the pole for the Daytona 500, becoming the first woman driver in history to do so.
That breakthrough at Indy, by the way, made her a household name and landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Great for increasing awareness and widespread public recognition? Absolutely. Great for being taken seriously as a professional athlete? Maybe; maybe not. We see men in various stages of undress on magazine covers all the time, and almost no one bats an eye … but that’s another column for another day.
Danica has experienced a few bumps in the road – or on the track, I should say – this season. Early in 2017, her primary sponsor, Nature’s Bakery, reneged on its deal to finance her No. 10 Ford Fusion.
Great racing performances might have attracted new sponsors, but unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. She has endured a string of unfortunate finishes, and was 29th in the driver standings headed into the July 8 Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway. Through 17 races, she has one top 10 and seven DNFs.
There have a couple of uncomfortable PR moments along the way, too. As her fellow competitor Aric Almirola was being airlifted to a local hospital after a serious crash at Kansas Speedway on May 13, Patrick was bemoaning her personal bad luck on Twitter.
After being caught up in yet another accident, at Daytona on July 1 with six laps remaining in the race, she was so frustrated that she actually got out and kicked her car. Entertaining? Sure, but I’m willing to wager we’ll never see Jimmie Johnson do that. It did, however, definitely demonstrate her will to win at NASCAR’s top level, and her disappointment at not being able to do so.
And those two aforementioned visits to victory lane? Patrick was there to congratulate her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who has caught some competitive lightning in a bottle this year, winning two races in the No. 17 Ford, driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
The media loves her, and there are an awful lot of Danica Patrick hats and T-shirts in the stands at every track on the Cup Series circuit, but in competitive sports, the deciding factor is always based on performance, and that just hasn’t materialized.
She will be remembered by many, missed by some (including me), and I have no inside information regarding her future, but in my heart I believe that 2017 will mark Danica Patrick’s final season in the Cup Series. Maybe sometime in the future another woman will come along and take NASCAR by storm … around the same time that Jake Arrieta retires and the world champion Chicago Cubs add an ace left-handed reliever – named Tammy – to their roster.