NASCAR, like most sports, has had its share of polarizing personalities over the last few years. They typically are welcomed to the sport with open arms by fans and those within the sport, championing a new fresh face that can upset the current guard and maybe become the next household name.
Back in the day it was Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. More recently Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick have rounded out that category. While drivers often get a hot or cold response, it’s typically because they’re beating somebody else’s favorite driver or standard bearer.
Then there’s other reasons all together that have nothing to do with performance, and we might be welcoming a new member of this exclusive club: Danica Patrick.
During her post-wreck comments during the red flag of the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway, Patrick launched into a lament that seemed to go on way too long, particularly as the images preceding her interview were that of a Sawzall slicing through the roof of Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Ford. She was reviled on social media for her perceived insensitivity, mentioning her concern for Almirola almost as an afterthought, following the bemoaning of breaking brake rotors with 300 lbs. of pressure, while Joey Logano seemed to acutely aware of how grave the situation may be, bordering on becoming emotional.
While it may not be a popular view, I’m willing to give Patrick the benefit of the doubt on this one.
It was the first time in almost three years that she had a car that was remotely competitive at a track other than a restrictor plate race, and she was working towards the front, racing drivers who win with great regularity – and passing them in the process. Knowing that racecar drivers by nature have to have a bit of a “me me me” mentality about them, and having stood in Victory Lane a week earlier with her boyfriend and fellow competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the pressure of not performing up to expectations for going on five seasons is starting to revel cracks in her exterior.
That and she just got turned head-on into the wall at 208 mph.
Whether she passed whatever concussion protocol she was put through or could hop up and down on one foot and not fall over is irrelevant. You hit something head-on with that much ferocity and burst into flames, it will probably elicit not the most desirable nor expected response. Coupled with comments made only a few weeks ago that she doesn’t want to do something if she’s miserable doing it, the passion for her profession is clearly past the best by date.
Openly stating the realization of your own mortality and foreshadowing with, “one of these times, these wrecks aren’t going to go so good for me….” led me to take a look back at some of her (many) head on collisions that looked as bad, if not worse, than the impact she endured Saturday night.
2012 Gatorade Duel – Daytona International Speedway
Here she was sent head-on into the backstretch wall by – oh irony – Almirola. This was to be Patrick’s first Cup Series event in anticipation of her debut in the Daytona 500. Welcome to NASCAR!
2012 Subway Jalapeno 250 Daytona International Speedway – XFINITY Series
Another head-on Daytona impact, and this time her head appears to hit the steering column after it shoots straight upward following contact with the wall.
2013 Subway Fresh Fit 500 – Phoenix International Raceway
A blown right front tire at a bad angle sends her into wall, not unlike what Matt Kenseth experienced earlier this year
2016 Auto Club 400 – Auto Club Speedway
Similar to her crash on Saturday night, she gets hooked head on into the wall. I know some question her ability, but you’d be hard pressed to pin this one on her.
2016 GEICO 500 – Talladega Superspeedway
Another superspeedway crash head-on into the inside wall at bad angle. Not that any of them would be a good angle to drive into going over 200 mph. This one looked surprisingly similar to —
2017 GEICO 500 – Talladega Superspeedway
Pretty much the same spot. And angle. And the week leading up to Saturday’s crash. Maybe a little sour on the sport at this point?
Now, this isn’t to excuse her on-track performance. The performance has not matched the hype, we get all of that. However, she has taken a beating this year, and the last couple of years in particular. Successive impacts on back-to-back weeks like she’s had at Talladega and Kansas aren’t good for one’s longevity or odds on going the season without missing a race or two.
Like Rudy Ruettiger, she’s 5-foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and those types of hits start to add up after a while. Ask a 5-footer like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Carl Edwards and why one has walked away early, while the other is penning his farewell letter over the next six months.
What we saw on Saturday night wasn’t so much insensitivity or selfishness, but in a roundabout way, you saw a professional racecar driver surmise why they don’t want to do it anymore. It’s often said when a driver gets scared about crashing or fearing the worst, it’s time to hang it up.
While it’s just my uninformed opinion, I’m starting to get the impression that this might be her last season as a full-time Cup Series regular. She’s done her part in helping to promote the sport and get more eyes on it as it was trying to extricate itself from the collapse of the auto industry in 2008 and the blow that motorsports as a whole suffered the next few years.
More marketing machine than driver? Yes, and quite an effective one at that. Many of the teams she’s driven for would not have existed had she not brought sponsor dollars willing to invest in her name, if not her stat sheet.
She’s done far more good than bad for NASCAR, so let’s give her a pass for an unflattering moment on TV for those head-on impacts she’s mailed in these last couple of years.