What is the legacy of Danica the racer?

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 3, 2018 at 4:11 PM

Danica Patrick has two races scheduled before an announced retirement in 2018.

The 35-year-old driver will enter NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in February and IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 in May. Provided she doesn’t pull off a major surprise and win one of those races, a question is what should her legacy be?

Is she a trailblazer, a role model for young women? Or is she simply someone who parlayed great marketing skills into a 15-year racing career on the major stage? Whether it’s sexism or legitimate criticism, she is often the most commented about and most controversial figure in the sport of auto racing.

Impressive in IndyCars

It’s no accident she picked stock car and open-wheel racing’s marquee events to end her career. Those are where Patrick’s greatest achievements have been.

She finished fourth (the highest finish ever for a woman) at the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and was named the race’s Rookie of the Year. She led 19 laps in that season’s 500 after leading 32 laps in the previous IndyCar race in Japan. She also won three pole positions that season on the oval tracks of Kansas, Kentucky and Chicago.

In 2007, Patrick scored three podium finishes including a runner-up at the Detroit Grand Prix road circuit before making history in 2008 by becoming the first women to win a major open-wheel race at the Twin Ring Motegi Superspeedway in Japan.

Patrick finished in the top 10 in points six times over a seven-year Indy Car career from 2005-11. She posted one win and seven top-five finishes in 115 races. The top-five runs included runner-up finishes at Texas and Miami in 2010.

NASCAR milestones

Patrick started dabbling in NASCAR in 2010 and made the full-time jump in 2012 where she won the pole for the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona. She scored seven top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series in 2011-12 with a fourth-place at Las Vegas, the highest-ever finish for a woman in one of NASCAR’s three national series.

A much-ballyhooed move to Cup came next and Patrick won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, the first pole position ever for a woman in the Cup Series. She led five laps and thus became one of only 14 drivers to lead a lap in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, joining names like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Allison and Tony Stewart for whom she drove for.

Through 2017, Patrick has set records with seven top-10 finishes in 190 Cup Series starts, both numbers the most ever for a female driver.

A racing background

Patrick may have burst onto the national scene at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, but the career of former Midget car racer T.J. Patrick’s daughter was years in the making.

After spending time as a youth in karting, she made her mark as a teenager in Europe where she raced in the Formula Vauxhall and Formula Ford Series. In 2000, she finished second to Formula Ford champion Anthony Davidson at the Brands Hatch Circuit, marking the best finish ever by an American in that series.

Doomed by politics in Europe, she returned to the states and tested a NASCAR Xfinity Series car for ppcRacing in 2002. She ended back in open-wheel cars in the Barber Dodge and later the Toyota Atlantic Series.

She led the Toyota Atlantic points for much of the season before winding up third in the standings. The impressive performance led to her shot in IndyCars the following year.

Marketing frenzy

Much of the controversy surrounding Patrick has been how her off-track ventures have overshadowed her on-track work.

She posed for FHM magazine and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. She was also featured in some of the Super Bowl’s raciest and most popular ads with former sponsor Go.Daddy.com.

She was also in a five-year relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. until the two announced they had recently split.

With her getting so much attention for her looks compared to the lack or results, she has been compared to former professional tennis player Anna Kournikova.

However, Patrick is certainly the more accomplished of the two. While there is the obvious mechanical aspect, she faces a physical challenge competing against men, particularly at races like 500 laps at Bristol or 500 miles at Darlington.

Lack of performance

Although her achievements were listed earlier, there is no doubt Patrick hasn’t performed to the level one would expect in Stewart-Haas equipment.

Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart have all won races and in Harvick’s case, a championship, during Patrick’s time at Stewart-Haas.

In his first season with the team, Clint Bowyer had six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Compare that to Patrick’s record of no top-five and seven top-10s in over five full seasons.

What is the reason for her struggles in NASCAR?

Ask different people and you will get different reasons. Some say she’s simply not good enough to race at that level. Others point to all the outside distractions which include her own wine, workout programs and clothing brand.

Some will point out how she trained to become a top open-wheel driver. She’s certainly not the first and won’t be the last to struggle at another form of racing.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti was well off the pace in stock cars as was Steve Kinser, the 20-time World of Outlaws champion.

On the flipside, NASCAR legends Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison found limited success in their brief IndyCar careers.

The final verdict

Patrick’s supporters, like her former teammate and boss Tony Stewart, will point to her achievements and her versatility behind the wheel.

In 2006, she was part of a four-driver team, along with NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, and road racers Jan Lammers and Allan McNish, that led at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona before they were sidelined with overheating problems. In 2009, Patrick was part of a team which finished ninth at the Rolex 24.

The detractors will look at her record, especially in NASCAR, and how she did little with a top-flight ride.

So, what will the legacy of Danica Patrick the racer be? Ultimately like any other sports figure, it’s up to the fans to decide how she will be remembered.

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