Has Danica earned her seat in NASCAR’s changing world?

Danica Patrick at Atlanta Motor Speedway
(photo from atlantamotorspeedway.com)
Danica Patrick will be racing her first Daytona 500 in February 2012, and many wonder if she has truly earned her right to a seat in NASCAR’s elite series. During the off-season, fans and media are considering the possibilities of her full-time presence in the Nationwide series staying with JR Motorsports and  Tony Eury Jr. as her crew chief. Many are also wondering  how she will do with her part-time schedule in Sprint Cup at Stewart-Haas Racing with Greg Zipadelli as crew chief. So what are expectations for this female driver in a male-dominated sport?  

In short, opinions are mixed and similar to a busy off-season and speculations for the new season, the trending consensus is… there are a lot of unknowns making predictions near impossible. 

Changes are a reality in NASCAR
(photo from ideachampions.com)
The NASCAR world as we have known it is rapidly changing and there are many anticipated changes ahead, including changes to the cars which will now be using Electronic Fuel Injection as just one example.  There are changes to teams with one of the most active silly seasons bringing several new driver and crew chief pairings. There are changes in the economy affecting the amount of sponsorship dollars available and forcing reductions in teams and races for many owners. And yes, the same economy is also affecting the number of open seats in the stands at many tracks.  As a female racer, Danica Patrick is yet another changing dynamic within NASCAR going into the 2012 season.

The last female driver fans remember in NASCAR’s elite Cup series is Shawna Robinson. She wasn’t the first female driver in the series, and time has proven, she’s not the last. The same is true for Danica. However, there is a difference this time around and looking at Danica’s past will reveal only some clues as to why she will most likely continue her trend of being the first woman to achieve more feats in her historic career.

At the age of 10 in 1992, Danica Sue Patrick began go-karting at the Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wisconsin eventually winning several World Karting Association track championships. At the age of 16, Patrick moved to England advancing her racing career in the British national series against drivers including future Formula 1 world champion, Jenson Button.  She earned second-place in Britain’s Formula Ford Festival, the highest finish by a woman in the event. In 2002, Patrick returned to the United States driving for Rahal Letterman Racing in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and moving to the Toyota Atlantic Championship for 2003.  In 2004, Danica finished third in championship points. 

Danica being interviewed after 2005 Indianapolis 500
(photo from IndyStar.com)
In May of 2005, Patrick became the fourth woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, joining Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher. She posted the fastest practice speed of the month during the morning practice session on the first day of qualifications. Although, she didn’t get the pole, Patrick’s fourth starting position was the highest level for the race by a female driver. Danica Patrick is also the first female driver to lead the race at Indianapolis, with a total of nineteen laps led throughout the event.  Patrick’s fourth place finish, the same as her starting position made history as the highest finish of a female in the Indianapolis 500. The previous record of ninth was set by Janet Guthrie in 1978. 

In July 2005, Patrick won her first pole position, leading a 1-2-3 sweep by her team at Kansas Speedway. She is the second woman to accomplish this feat in the IndyCar series, with Sarah Fisher being the first in 2002 at Kentucky Speedway.  However, Patrick would continue the season getting her second pole in August at Kentucky and her third pole came at Chicagoland Speedway tying her with Tomas Scheckter’s record for number of pole positions earned in a rookie season. In Danica’s first year in the IndyCar series, she finished twelfth earning her the Rookie of the Year title.  She also earned the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year for her historic performance.

In 2006, Danica would actually out-perform her fourth place starting position by qualifying third in the season opener at Homestead. However tragedy struck when teammate Paul Dana was killed in a crash during practice and teammates Patrick along with Buddy Rice withdrew from the race.  Both resumed their season with the second race at St. Petersburg. Patrick would achieve fourth place finishes at Nashville and Milwaukee tying her career best IndyCar finish. Danica ended the season in ninth place for the series, beating her rookie year finish. 

For 2007, Danica changed teams signing with Andretti Green Racing. Highlights for the season would begin at Texas when she ran with the lead pack for the entire race and led for the first time since her 2005 season.  She finished less than a second behind the winner, Sam Hornish, Jr., with her first podium finish and then career-best third place.  Later in the season at Belle Isle, Patrick would again get a podium finish with second, again a career high in the series, tying her with Sarah Fisher for best finish in IndyCar by a female driver. 

Danica with her first place trophy in Japan
(photo from getsportsinfo.com)

With 2008 being her second season with Andretti Green Racing, Patrick won the race at Japan in April becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race and joining the ranks of drag racer Shirley Muldowney , who won three NHRA Top Fuel Championships, as the first female winner in the top tier series. Patrick would go on to finish sixth for the season, the highest championship finish among American drivers for the 2008 season.

The 2009 Indianapolis 500 would be Patrick’s fifth time at the event.  She finished third, one spot better than her 2005 finish and a new record high finish for a female driver in the race. For the season, Patrick had the best finish of the Andretti Green team finishing fifth in championship points and again with the highest finish by an American for the series.

The 2010 season, is the first time Patrick would run full-time in IndyCar and a limited schedule in NASCAR’s Nationwide series with JR MotorsportsFor IndyCar, Danica’s top finishes for the season came at Texas and Homestead with second place finishes, the first podium finishes since 2007.  For the first time, Patrick also surpassed the IndyCar series record for consecutive races finished running, having finished every race of the 2010 season, as well as all but the first race of 2009 season, for a total of thirty-three races.

Again, in 2011 Patrick would run a full-time IndyCar schedule and NASCAR’s Nationwide series on a limited basis. With few highlights in her open-wheel races and before the season ended, Danica announced she would no longer be driving the IndyCar series. Beginning with the 2012 season, she plans to focus her full-time attention to driving in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.  Danica ended her season, dominating the IndyCar record for most consecutive races running at the finish.  As of October 2, 2011, she has competed in fifty consecutive races in the running.  The next highest total in the record book is thirty-two. Danica Patrick ends her IndyCar experience as the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing.

What some do not realize, is Danica has an equity stake in her Nationwide #7 JR Motorsports team. NASCAR highlights within the past two years for Patrick include finishing sixth place at Daytona’s ARCA race in February 2010, her first stock car race experience.  March 2011, Patrick set racing history again, finishing fourth in the Nationwide series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the best finish of a woman in NASCAR’s top-series.  July 2011, Patrick finished tenth in the Nationwide series at Daytona after leading thirteen laps earlier in the race.

Consider for just a moment, Danica achieved these feats while running a part-time Nationwide schedule and at the same time, running a full-time IndyCar schedule, with two independent racing car styles. When you also take into consideration her firsts as a female competitor across multiple series and racing formats and there is no other woman achieving these feats in a male dominated sport, Danica has indeed earned her seat among NASCAR’s elite series. However, there is another reality fans must face going forward. 

Danica Patrick is the only driver
on Forbes top 100 list
(photo from NYSportsJournalism.com)
Yes, NASCAR is a rapidly changing sport with many changes apparent and a weakened economy affecting those changes dramatically. So with all the unknowns the 2012 season has in store for fans, media and the sport, one reality we should expect is Danica-mania. Whether you like this idea or not, as the most searched athlete on the internet in 2011, Danica brings marketing power with her to NASCAR and in this economy, that is exactly what is needed. 

While questions still remain about how this female driver will perform on the track, there is absolutely no doubt, Danica Sue Patrick will continue to make waves with her historic career and will impact the NASCAR industry creating ripples that just scratch the surface of possibilities for the future of this sport.  No one should expect anything less than Danica-mania ramping up as we get closer to the race opening green flag of the Daytona 500 and  expect it to continue well beyond the checkered flag of this great American race.