Flat Spot On: Patrick Needs to Mash The Gas
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. – As an unofficial and unauthorized biographer of Danica Patrick, which leaves me well informed on the subject, I must admit to being disappointed in her rookie season in the Sprint Cup. Always one to index herself up to speed and avoid crashing, I wonder if Patrick will ever get up to speed in
At Talladega, where she was sometimes in the thick of the front draft, there was a problematic pit entry with 20 laps to go and a lap lost on the subsequent drive through penalty. It was a rookie mistake, perhaps, or maybe another driver’s fault. Yet, both are explanations that pale by comparison. Fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also made a mistake which involved another driver – while trying to win the race on the last lap.
The comparson to Stenhouse Jr. is an obvious one, given that he is Patrick’s boyfriend as well as rival for the Sprint Cup rookie title. As comparisons go, it might be a less than apples to apples. Stenhouse Jr. has been driving stock cars his entire racing career, while Patrick competed professionally in open wheel machinery from the age of 16 until she was 27 years old. If Patrick, now 31, fails to make the transition to the Sprint Cup from Indy cars, she would hardly be the first in recent years. The list also includes Indy car champions and Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr.
But the comparison to Stenhouse Jr. remains most relevant. He has pushed the envelope and generally mashed the gas in Roush Fenway Racing Fords while Patrick has tried to index herself up to speed in the
Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy entries. At an estimated income of more than $10 million per year that depends on image, it appears Patrick continues to be dedicated to not becoming the “girl who always crashes.”
Yet, from the perspective on the plains of Alabama, Stenhouse Jr. looked a lot better, even if his 185 mph collision with, ahem, rookie Austin Dillon (also in a Stewart-Haas Chevy) brought out the fateful yellow flag that decided the race. Those guys were running third and fourth at the time of the incident, two miles away from the checkered flag.
Patrick has always been at her best on high speed ovals, the Indy 500 being the origin of “Danica Mania” in 2005 when she almost won the race in her first try.
It made sense for Patrick, long since a media phenomenon, to move to NASCAR in part because there are more high speed ovals by comparison to IndyCar, which employs winged cars with high downforce that she acknowledges are difficult for her to drive on road and street courses. There’s also more money and media attention in the Sprint Cup.
Patrick’s opportunity, of course, comes from her ability to bring or generate sponsorship for her team owners. At this point, it bears mentioning that if this is such an easy thing for an attractive woman to accomplish simply on her appearance, the field would have a lot more attractive women. It also bears mentioning that others have brought money into the Sprint Cup in order to get an opportunity. Paul Menard, for example, has been backed by his father John Menard’s family business at the Richard Childress Racing team.
Lo and behold, Menard finished third at Talladega as a result of the crash involving Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon on the last lap. Nobody has ever accused Menard of balloon-footing, so it’s no surprise that he was running up front at Talladega, especially since he’s been a winner in the Sprint Cup at Indy.
In effect, Patrick is running out of good reasons for not finding a way to run closer to the front of the pack,
especially when it comes to intermediate tracks or superspeedways. The pit road incident at Talladega aside, the cumulative work of Patrick this season does not measure up well by comparison to Stenhouse Jr., even if the short tracks are thrown out.
The plate races at Daytona and Talladega are by her own admission Patrick’s strongest suit. Yet, in her second year of running plate races in the Sprint Cup, Patrick did not lead a lap at Talladega while Stenhouse led four times for six laps. Patrick occasionally made it into the Top Five, but there were no sorties into the lead. Then came the high-speed pit road entry in the grass with 20 laps to go…
If the problem is not getting a break from other drivers, I would suggest that running at the front solves a lot of these types of issues. If problems with other drivers ensue at the front instead of in the pack, all is ultimately forgiven when it comes to racing passion – such as the scenario with Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon.
During the course of writing a biography chronicling how Patrick made it from karting to almost winning the Indy 500, I talked with two other prominent female racers, Shirley Muldowney and Janet Guthrie. Of the two, it was clear how much Muldowney was satisfied with her career that included Top Fuel and Funny Car victories as well as a championship, despite horrendous injuries suffered in a crash aboard a Top Fuel car.
Guthrie, the first woman to race at Indy, by comparison was pained by the perception that she wasn’t capable of winning. Instead, fans tended to see her as an opportunist or in over her head. A smart, capable driver whose autobiography provides a lot of insight into the barriers she had to overcome, especially in NASCAR, Guthrie had regrets about ending her career before achieving that elusive professional victory. To continue upstream in the face of so many doubters, she wrote, was simply too much to sustain.
By virtue of her dedication to a well established career and an enviable record at the Indy 500, plus an IndyCar victory at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, those who see Patrick as unqualified or an opportunist are mouthing the usual sports fan biases, not the least of which is the resentment toward women who race. Yes, her victory in Japan included some fuel mileage strategy, but it’s still a damned fast track and a driver has to be in the front to have a chance to win.
And that’s the point. I believe Patrick is capable of racing in the front. But the clock is ticking in terms of her own confidence as well as the confidence of her team.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments