The echo from the microphone during Danica Patrick’s retirement press conference on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway said it all.
Unlike most NASCAR press conferences, there was no murmuring in the room. Instead, no one’s lips moved as Patrick cried her eyes out, spilling a raw emotion so rare in NASCAR that no one knew how to react.
Not only does Patrick’s departure mean the Cup Series is left without a female driver, but it makes the path moving forward difficult for the sport. Yes, she opened the floodgates for other female competitors to realize they, too, can be successful. But since the former IndyCar Series driver came over to the world of stock car racing, only a handful of women have followed in her path.
As difficult as it might be, though, the future is bright. Several female drivers are working their way through the NASCAR rankings, and it’s all thanks to Patrick’s efforts at making the sport more accepting and inclusive.
While Patrick ended her full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career on Sunday, so did Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. But the 2003 Cup champion didn’t get the attention his two peers received. When the race was over, he sat on pit road, looking over at the swarm of fans and media hovering over Earnhardt.
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Q: Now that Danica Patrick is done full-time racing, who will replace her as NASCAR’s next female star? – Christine P., Philadelphia
A: Patrick provided NASCAR with a unique opportunity to reach out to a new fan base. The benefit of having her around the sport for only seven years is unlike any other we’ve seen.
Thanks to Patrick’s efforts on and off the racetrack, there are women racers who now know they can make it in the sport. No longer will they have to think they can’t get the job done because they certainly can.
Patrick’s results obviously weren’t the best. In 190 Cup starts, she has seven top 10s and led 64 laps. She finished 24th in the standings twice (2015 and 2016), which isn’t spectacular for someone competing with Stewart-Haas Racing.
But what Patrick did prove is that given her disadvantage of racing in open-wheel divisions for so long, she was able to overcome the adversity at times. She could get the job done, and in doing so, she became the most successful female driver in NASCAR’s nearly 70 years of existence.
Moving forward, there are several women drivers who have the potential to duplicate, if not better, Patrick’s results. The possibility of making it in the sport was slim to none before her arrival. But now, the future is brighter than ever and it is the opportune time to try to make it.
Here are some female drivers who can move through the rankings to eventually become Cup drivers:
Zellers has plenty of potential to succeed in NASCAR given a diverse resume. While her stock car experience is limited, running one K&N Pro Series East race this year, she has plenty of other experience. It’s a resume that features SCCA racing and she is an FIA silver rated driver. If she can get sponsorship to run more K&N races, we could certainly see her work way up in the racing realm.
I took this of Danica earlier this year at Charlotte, I’ve never been so happy and sad at the same time. She’s going out of the sport where she started. She’s a huge part of the sport and we are truly going to miss her later. Danica is BADASS. ???? pic.twitter.com/DzGVEnODe1
— Hanna Zellers (@HannaZellers) November 17, 2017
Balcaen is a Canadian female racer who is a social media wizard. She has almost 9,000 Twitter followers and 37,000 fans on Instagram. Like Zellers, her experience is limited. She has some impressive Late Model starts on her record, including a few stellar runs with Lee Pulliam Performance at Motor Mile Speedway. In her lone K&N Pro Series East race, she finished 20th with Martin-McClure Racing.
#PARKEDIT in Victory Lane last night at Motor Mile. ??☝? Can't tell you how good this win felt after not being in the seat for over 3 months. Just goes to show with hard work and perseverance that you can make anything happen. We must always make the most of every opportunity we get, but most importantly #NEVERGIVEUP ! ???? I can't thank my fans enough that stick by me through the highs and lows of my racing career. Huge Thank you to Glen McLeod & Son Ltd. for making this race possible, along with my other sponsors @simpsonraceproducts @1stphorm @wcsportsbar and #SheadRacing. And thank you to Lee Pulliam Performance for giving me an awesome race car. Thanks for the support everyone? I love being in a racecar, and love being in the winners circle even more ?
Behar’s resume is absolutely stacked thanks to running the better part of the last four years in the K&N Pro Series West. She has six top fives and 23 top 10s in 34 starts, with a best finish of second in 2015 at Irwindale Speedway. All of her starts have been with her family-owned team. For the 20-year-old racer, it’s only a matter of time before a big team and sponsor pick her up so she can move up into one of NASCAR’s top three divisions.
— Nicole Behar (@NicoleBehar33) November 7, 2017
Decker, like Balcaen, had been racing Late Models for a while. As part of the 2015 Drive for Diversity class, she competed with Rev Racing at Hickory Motor Speedway. In 2016, she attempted her first Camping World Truck Series contest at Martinsville Speedway with NTS Motorsports, but DNQ’d. This past season, Decker ran seven ARCA Series races for Venturini Motorsports, with a best finish of seventh at Road America. She will compete full-time for Venturini next year.
— VenturiniMotorsports (@VenturiniMotor) November 12, 2017
The New York City native is well-known for her stint on the television series Survivor. But her success on the racetrack is much more impressive. She was the first female champion in the Skip Barber Racing Series, doing so at 13 years old. After being a member of the 2016 NASCAR Next class, she is now one of the top female NASCAR drivers. Last year, she earned seven top fives and 13 top 10s in 14 races for Bill McAnally Racing, finishing fourth in points. In 2017, she moved over to the Sunrise Ford Racing team, earning a top five and seven top 10s en route to a seventh-place finish in the standings.
— Julia Landauer (@julialandauer) November 14, 2017
Q: It seemed like Matt Kenseth rode into the sunset without many people recognizing him. Why was this the case? – Adam R., Charlotte
A: It’s a real shame more people didn’t recognize Kenseth’s retirement. His passion for the sport is as great as it gets. But no one seemed to pay mind to that as all the attention went to Earnhardt and Patrick.
Meanwhile, Kenseth is the only one of those three drivers who is a Cup champion. With 39 wins in the sport’s premier division and 29 trophies in the second-tier, he is a shoe-in for a NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination.
But when I walked on pit road Sunday evening, no one besides a Fox reporter and I were talking to him. It was unbelievable to think the NASCAR media parade just ignored a champion.
The worst part about Kenseth’s departure is that it is clear he can still win at NASCAR’s top level. He just earned a triumph at Phoenix International Raceway in his penultimate race with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth deserves only the utmost respect for his stellar ability behind the wheel. His dry humor is seen as different, and that’s a good thing to combine with a driving ability that made him one of the most consistent NASCAR drivers of his time.