My first visit to the Daytona International Speedway came as a writer in 2010. Though the weekend would eventually be defined by a pothole and the Daytona 500 going from day to night, entering Speedweeks the story was one Danica Patrick. Danica-mania was coming to NASCAR, to an extent that the ESPN broadcast booth and execs took questions in the media center regarding their coverage of her debut race.
I posed a question about the need to balance the 42 other stories in the field with stock car racing’s new first lady, an exchange that ended with Andy Petree noting that even though I was asking questions about why the network was marginalizing the rest of the field, I was still talking about Danica.
It’s been a catch-22 those of us that watch the Nationwide Series from the front of the field to the back have been grappling with for years. Like it or not, she is a story, and a defining one at that for the Nationwide Series. She’s the highest profile development driver the sport has in the ranks. She is a staple of the TV coverage, meaning any viewer from the hardcore race fan to the newbie just discovering NASCAR are going to see her, and plenty of her. And because of her being both recognizable and highly visible, the model of driver development she is employing is going to be looked at by just about everyone moving forward.
As I touched on in 5 Points earlier this week, Danica’s latest tirade in trying (and failing) to wreck Landon Cassill for a perceived wrong on the race track in Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas is indicative of a real cart-before-the-horse problem. Here’s a driver that’s never been a threat for a win in a race not held on a plate track, is still considering lead lap finishes a solid day and is still in her first full-time season of stock car racing at any level. Yet, the overwhelming focus is not on the fact that she’s a 28th place Cup driver on a good day (and slated to be full-time in 2013), but on the need to stand up for herself.
Regardless of whether it’s Danica Patrick or Daniel Patrick making such remarks, they’re absolutely backwards. Figure out how to race, how to make passes, how to make a car better, how to score a top 20 finish, before worrying about the perceived injustice of the race track. But nobody (short of maybe Greg Zippadelli, who was the first person in NASCAR I can think of that had the nerve to criticize Danica in NASCAR competition by telling her she knew better than to wreck her race car) has been correcting this immature and premature behavior. Former crew chief Tony Eury Jr.’s busy running his mouth about how she’s being taken advantage of because she’s a woman. Owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart don’t miss an opportunity to praise the talent of the cash cow they need to keep their self-named racing organizations afloat in a challenging sponsorship market. And broadcasters from ESPN to FOX telecast races like they have hard-ons for the GoDaddy model.
Just take a survey of driver development in recent years, and look at how it worked out. Brad Keselowski has earned a reputation (and deservedly so) for being a driver that backs down from no one. But look at his career, and look at how it progressed. Keselowski was toiling for the backmarker Keith Coleman Racing organization before his break came; filling in for the suspended Ted Musgrave, Keselowski came within a few laps of winning the Truck race at Memphis in 2007 before Travis Kvapil dumped him. Keselowski’s temper was nowhere to be found that night, no retribution was taken, and by the end of the summer the No. 88 at JR Motorsports was his.
It wasn’t until Charlotte in 2008, when Keselowski turned heads by storming past owner Dale Jr. for the lead in the spring Nationwide race, that Bad Brad fought back. In position to challenge for the win late, Keselowski fell victim to a side-swipe under caution by Denny Hamlin, leading to the first war of words between those two.
By then, Keselowski had proven himself a star in the making. He knew how to drive, he knew how to race, and it was then he started the move from development prospect to respected racer.
Same thing with one Kyle Busch. Though he’s always been immature (who can forget Busch doing a burnout after finishing second at Darlington in a 2003 Nationwide race), Busch’s wrecking-ball mentality on the track was not always there. Frankly, until Busch got a Cup ride in 2005 (and proceeded to wreck Anthony Lazzaro under yellow after the end of the Cup show at Watkins Glen), it was hard to imagine this guy being a driver that one feared racing, not out of being beat, but out of the slightest wrong equaling a wreck.
Flip the arrow the other direction, and look at drivers that figured they’d stand up for themselves before learning to, well, race. Anyone remember Billy Tanner? For those that don’t, Tanner ended up in a wreck in a Talladega ARCA race involving a better-financed development driver. Tanner opted to handle that situation by standing up for himself in post-race remarks, going on a tirade about rich kids making it impossible for people like himself to start a career.
Anyone seen him on a race track lately? If they have, it’s not in a major series…his career prospect all but shot after that moment. Rather than acting like someone learning the ropes and focusing in on the realities of the draft, this guy opted to point fingers and fan flames long before paying his due.
And regardless of the subjective question of dues and whether or not Danica has paid them as she nears the end of her first Nationwide campaign, this singular driving force to establish herself not as a racer but as someone not to be taken advantage of on the track is utterly ignorant of the reality of today’s racing. For every wreck out there that comes as a result of a driver being taken advantage of, there’s more wrecks occurring because a driver is off the pace or over their head on the track.
Andy Hillenburg getting wrecked at Darlington by Jeff Gordon in 2004? His car was too slow. Kyle Busch bowling over Jennifer Jo Cobb in a Truck race? He was impatient. Nationwide regulars at Dover? Joey Logano thought they were in the way.
Nobody’s trying to take advantage of Danica Patrick…they’re trying to make passes on a lapped car. But as long as the mentality around Patrick is one of establishment and entitlement, rather than one facing the cold hard reality that her performance as a stock car driver has been utterly unremarkable, incidents like Sunday’s are going to keep happening.
A staple of NASCAR and the most visible recent product of the Nationwide Series is going to continue to be known for racy commercials and for getting into tiffs with third-tier race cars for irrelevant spots in the running order. Ordinarily, it’d never be a story. But love her or hate her, watch her or ignore her, Danica is a story, and a big one.
The fact that it’s nothing short of a joke does no good for anyone participating or watching this sport.
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