With so much attention spent on Danica Patrick and her introduction to stock car racing, it was easy to overlook the fact that a total of six female drivers competed in the various races this Speedweeks in Daytona. So, now that the opening weeks are in the books, let’s look back and see how the female drivers did.
For the last few weeks, Patrick has garnered the majority of the media attention at Daytona. The open-wheel driver made her first start in a stock car during the ARCA event, and last weekend made her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series 300-mile race. Never out of reach of the cameras, it would have been easy to think the diminutive sensation was the only female driver within 1,000 miles of the place.
Yet, the ARCA race saw six girls – including Danica – compete in the 80-lap event. Patrick was the highest-finishing of them all, but it was Alli Owens that led the group in terms of consistently running up front. Jennifer Jo Cobb was the lone driver with two X chromosomes in the Truck Series, while Chrissy Wallace also made her Nationwide Series debut in Saturday’s Drive4COPD 300 to round out the group.
For these women, making the jump to the big leagues of stock car racing is tough enough on its own – but how has “Danica-mania” affected the way they went about the job at hand?
For Wallace, not at all.
Talking with the 21-year-old second generation driver on Wednesday before her first practice in a Nationwide car, Wallace appeared confident and eager to get on the track. The daughter of Mike Wallace, she has a total of seven NASCAR Truck Series starts under her belt, but is hoping to make the jump to Nationwide full-time this year. While she struggles to break in, Danica has been the buzz over any other woman, bringing along a media circus in her wake; but to Wallace, she claims it’s just another weekend at the track whether the IndyCar star is there or not.
In fact, all the attention being spent on Danica motivated the driver of the No. 41 Rick Ware-owned Chevrolet to run better than her open-wheel counterpart. While she explained Patrick was just another driver and would think of her no differently, moments later she described how it would be an amazing accomplishment to beat the much-hyped Patrick on the track.
Unfortunately for Wallace, an impatient Paul Menard ended her race before it even began. Starting 35th, Wallace was unable to complete the first lap during her Nationwide debut after getting tagged by Menard as she exited the fourth corner. Making hard contact with the wall, Wallace was disappointed and upset with the Cup Series regular that bought his way into the race.
With Wallace’s ride a mangled mess, Patrick was the lone female left to compete. But while she was able to avoid a close call early, the JR Motorsports driver was unable to miss the Big One that collected her on Lap 69. Just like the first incident, Patrick held the wheel straight and drove through the smoke. Unfortunately, the spinning car of Colin Braun caught the No. 7 Chevrolet and ended her day early. So much hype and anticipation for her debut… and, just like that, it all ended in “just one of those racing deals.”
In the Truck Series race, Cobb was not much luckier. Much like Wallace, Cobb’s day was over just as it began. The 36-year-old was caught up in the opening-lap wreck triggered by fellow rookie Austin Dillon. Trying to avoid the wreckage ahead of her, Cobb took the low line through the grass – but it was not enough to get through in one piece.
The Kansas native fared better in the ARCA race one week earlier. One of the six girls entered in the event, Cobb raced a smart race to patiently work her way to a 17th place finish from her 42nd starting spot.
Cobb was the second-highest finishing female in ARCA, behind Patrick’s sixth. Making her stock car debut, Patrick overcame a spin through the frontstretch grass to finish in the top 10. After beating and banging her way to the checkered flag, Patrick exited her car beaming with satisfaction.
Not so excited about her day was Owens. Driving for Venturini Motorsports, Owens had a strong car in the draft and ran up front for much of the event. As the race reached its closing stages, Owens was shuffled out of the mix and forced to settle with a disappointing 23rd-place finish.
“I am not pleased with our run at Daytona,” Owens said on her Facebook page. “As a driver, it’s is my job to close, meaning have a great finish and close the deal. I did not do that. One thing I have learned while being here at Venturini Motorsports is that my team is here to make me a great driver – not a good or an OK one. After running up front, I should have stayed there to the end. Instead, when things got a little dicey, I got shuffled to the back. I realized after talking to Billy Venturini what my weaknesses are.”
Jill George drew the attention of the media, but for none of the reasons she had hoped. Driving low to avoid another car, her vehicle hit the apron, dug in, and flipped on its side before hitting the outside wall – much like Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s flip in the Nationwide race. The married mother of one was able to walk away from the wreck and wave to the crowd, however.
For the other two girls – Leilani Munter and Milka Duno – the trip to Daytona was not what they expected. Each was caught up in early incidents and unable to run the entire 80-lap race, limiting their experience both hoped to gain inside a stock car. Just prior to her wreck, Munter had run one of the fastest laps of the event, making her early exit that much more frustrating. But while it’s disappointing to crash out early, this tough luck won’t keep these girls down.
“I do not think media attention or lack of it really affects my ability to focus on racing,” Munter said. “When I get in the racecar, I am completely focused on what I am doing and I don’t think about the cameras at all. I am just the same as the other drivers – I just want to win the race, that’s all I’m thinking about.”
So while the good looks and media savvy of Patrick took much of the attention off the other female drivers in Daytona, their goals and aspirations certainly deserve the same attention as NASCAR’s GoDaddy girl. Breaking into the sport of stock car racing is one of the most difficult things to do these days, and being a woman doing so makes it that much tougher. These girls may not have had the results they had hoped for, but the experience will stick with them for years to come. Some may succeed further down the road, while others may fade into the “remember when” file, but each can say they raced at the World Center of Racing – and that’s more than most men can say.