This week’s Frontstretch NASCAR debate question: Danica Patrick had a strong performance during Speedweeks, finishing top 10 in both stages and contending until one of the big wrecks knocked her out. She followed it up with a 17th-place, lead-lap finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Is that a sign of things to come this season for NASCAR’s lone full-time female Cup driver or has the ship sailed on Danica improving at this level?
YES: Danica’s Got One Last Shot
NASCAR’s lone lady driving at the sport’s top level was feeling the pressure this offseason. Primary sponsor Nature’s Bakery, less than 12 months after signing a multi-year deal to back her pulled out of their deal altogether. Lawsuits followed, from both sides but the baked good company insists Patrick’s attitude and supposed willingness to plug other products was a main reason the deal got nixed. Stewart-Haas Racing has been scrambling to fill sponsorship inventory ever since.
That’s harder than you think for Patrick, turning age 35 this year and entering her fifth full season at the Cup level. A once multi-million dollar marketing genius has fallen off the top of the list for Fortune 500 companies. You can only push your minority status so far before someone goes, “Well, what have you actually achieved?”
The track record simply hasn’t been good for Patrick: she’s without a single top-five finish in 156 Cup Series starts. What makes me, let alone anyone think this ship isn’t sinking?
Simple: sometimes, when the pressure ramps up that’s when an athlete finally gets their act together. Patrick must put up or shut up; there’s no more extra chances. You’ve seen that extra focus pay off already in a quality Daytona Speedweeks followed by a solid, top-20 Atlanta performance.
Patrick, for the first time since 2013-14 entered the season with the same crew chief. Billy Scott, ever so quietly has built the 1-2 punch of chemistry and confidence for her behind the wheel. The duo combined to post Patrick’s best average finish last year, 22.0 along with a career high in laps led (30). She finished 33 of 36 races, didn’t get involved in a major wreck after Talladega in May and ended the season with four top-20 runs in her last seven starts.
Is that gonna translate to Victory Lane? No. Not even close. But consistency is that other, back-door way to sneak into a Chase where nearly 50 percent (16 of about 35 full-timers) make the playoffs. Heck, Jamie McMurray got over the hump last year without leading a single lap. If he can do it on the back of just two top-five performances why can’t Danica?
She drives for a team, Stewart-Haas Racing who’s stormed out of the box as the best on the circuit. Their transition to Ford has given them money, power, and resources; even the worst team in the bunch gets a boost from that. Owner Tony Stewart no longer has driving to worry about; he can double as a powerful mentor. Her personal life is stable, leading to added focus and all her teammates believe. Yes, even Kurt Busch is a powerful Danica backer and the environment is ripe for her to succeed.
The stages also offer the potential for wackiness, bonus points, and a path forward. A few top-five finishes in plate races, days where she can consistently stay up front may earn her 10-15 extra points. Patrick has finally learned to control the car, her aggression, and keep rivals from wrapping her up in a wreck.
Will all that make her Chase worthy? Far from a guarantee. But in this new system it might make her good enough to be in Chase contention. Just hovering near the cutline throughout the spring and early summer is good for NASCAR, good for her confidence level and convincing for whatever long-term partner winds up replacing Nature’s Bakery.
Danica needs to make a jump this year. She knows it. And she’ll do it.
NO: Danica Won’t Get Better
Danica Patrick’s boat has sailed right on over a waterfall at this point. Yes, she ran well in the Daytona 500 prior to wrecking, but that’s like saying the Atlanta Falcons had one of the greatest Super Bowl performances of all time… except for blowing a 28-3 lead.
Also, it’s Daytona. Everyone runs well there. Saying Patrick is going to have a great year because she ran well at Daytona is like saying that little Jimmy is destined to be in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame one day because his little league coach gave him a participation trophy.
Let’s not forget that Patrick had some of the best equipment in the Daytona 500. Her teammate Kurt Busch won the event and teammate Kevin Harvick won one of the segments and led the most laps of the day.
Nothing condemns Patrick more than the stats. This is Patrick’s fifth year in Cup and she has yet to contend for a win. Not only has she never made the Chase, she has not even finished in the top 20 in points. In addition, Patrick did not record a single top 10 last season.
Meanwhile, all three of her Stewart-Haas teammates won races and made the Chase in 2016. I would love to see what would happen if guys like Regan Smith, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, or even boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got in the No. 10 Ford. I bet they would contend for titles like the other three cars on the team.
Patrick’s performance is not the reason she was awarded that ride––sponsorship and popularity were. She did not win a single race in the XFINITY Series and she won one Verizon IndyCar Series race on fuel mileage. Patrick had excellent equipment in those series as well, driving for JR Motorsports, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Racing.
Now it seems that the sponsorship money is drying up, as SHR and Nature’s Bakery are in a legal dispute, while the NASCAR fan base seems to be losing interest in someone who runs around 25th place on a weekly basis.
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