One thing is glaringly evident in observing Danica Patrick’s 2016- she’s running out of time.
The 34 year old driver just finished her fourth season at stock car racing’s highest level. Many drivers who have the opportunity to drive in Stewart Haas level equipment have at least shown flashes of brilliance. But in 2016, Patrick just wasn’t very competitive.
She certainly had her high points. Patrick found consistency, improving her average finish from 23.5 in 2015 to 22nd in 2016. She accomplished by only finishing out of the top 25 five times. She showed strength on the road courses, earning a 19th at Sonoma and leading 11 laps at Watkins Glen. Her best finish of the season came at Charlotte in the fall, where she avoided trouble and finished 11th.
But, overall, it was just more of the same mediocrity Patrick has found in her career. She had no top 5s or top 10s and only four top 15s. To make matters worse, she had some problems down the stretch, most notably in the spring. Patrick was fined $20,000 by NASCAR in March after gesturing towards Kasey Kahne after an incident at Fontana when Kahne put her into the wall. Kahne would put the blame on himself following the race.
At Talladega the next month, Patrick had what she described as the worst wreck of her life after Patrick was pushed right into the backstretch wall. She collected the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth and slammed the wall at near full-speed, bursting into flames. Patrick was rattled but was thankfully uninjured.
Patrick had yet another bad accident just a couple of weeks later at Dover. Just a few minutes into opening practice, a gear broke on Patrick’s Chevrolet and she leaked oil all over the frontstretch. Chris Buescher and Tony Stewart spun in the oil and hit non-SAFER barrier walls. All three were sore but weren’t injured in the hard wreck.
Although Patrick still hasn’t found the success expected on the track, she continued to serve as an admirable ambassador to the sport off of it. She’s still the only full time female driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup or XFINITY Series, and thanks in part to her partnership with Nature’s Bakery, she has spent much of the year focused on health and wellness. She’s writing a book on fitness and will be introducing a new exercise program next year. A common sight in NASCAR social media this season was Patrick posting yoga pictures of various poses. In a September interview with Fox Business, Patrick revealed she’ll be coming out with a new line of clothing in January and has aspirations to go into the TV business.
But, in the same interview, Patrick revealed that she’s not going to leave NASCAR until she wins a race. A problem for Patrick has been the revolving door of crew chiefs her No. 10 Chevrolet has had the last few seasons. Keeping crew chief Billy Scott and continuing to improve on last season’s results should be only a positive for the team, if they decide to go that route.
But time is still running out. Patrick’s problem is not equipment- her teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart found plenty of success this season. Her problem is not a lack of aggression, as showcased in the aforementioned Kahne incident. Her problem is also not due to inexperience- she has made over 150 Sprint Cup Series starts. Whatever the problem is, the team needs to identify and find a solution to it.
These next two years will be mightily important for Patrick- her contract will be up following the 2018 season. At that point, and with the possibility of Cole Custer coming up from SHR’s XFINITY Series team or a free agent such as Kyle Larson entering the picture, will Stewart Haas have enough room for Patrick? She needs to start providing results befitting of her team and her experience level.
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