It turns out you were an inspiration after all. You are so awful that women everywhere set out to prove they don’t stink as bad as you. You know, like a pig or somethin’.
I guess I made a difference after all.
You absolutely did, Leela. Now please, please retire. Immediately.
— Futurama, “A Leela of Her Own”
Another DNF. Another junked chassis. Another interview immediately outside an infield care center. Another self-pity speech about bad luck, tone-deaf by any standard due to the surrounding environment. Another social media post, bathed in a false perception that things were going better. All as a mangled mess of a car is forced onto a hauler for it’s last ride to the shop, to be stripped of salvageable electronics and other parts.
It is May 15, 2017; and the sixth year of Danica Patrick’s foray into the world of NASCAR continues to soar through the air much in the way that bricks do not.
Full disclosure. I am not a fan of Danica Patrick, but…
Her name is one I have heard in racing circles since the early 2000s. Before her turning twenty in about 2002, she was considerably making a name for herself in Europe at a level akin to the was Scott Speed was here in the States. Both aspiring young talents, both looking to be America’s answer to the ongoing trivia question of Formula 1 drivers from the US that were not named Hill or Andretti.
And then the next level came calling. Speed was quickly accepted into the Red Bull driver development program of the time that was snatching up global talent. Patrick had caught the eye of Bobby Rahal, at a time in which the nature of the ongoing American open-wheel split was about to enter the third act of its story. While Scott Speed suffered a few derailments on his way to Formula 1 mediocrity (turns out he was more talented on dirt), Patrick quickly ascended the short step ladder of the United States open wheel scene.
I’m not going to lie, when the red carpet was rolled out in her rookie IRL season; she actually stepped right up and not only accepted the challenge, but succeeded in a way I honestly think most rookies should in the same position. She won poles, lead laps, and lead the 2005 Indianapolis 500 in the late stages. If there was any animosity to be had at that point, it was directed at ABC/ESPN’s singularly-focused coverage that made it the “Danica Patrick, And Others” spectacle.
The end of her tenure with a fading Rahal program was a welcome change to consistent front-running equipment at Andretti-Green. Seven podiums, a much debated victory at Motegi, and a 2009 season that saw her as (legitimately) the best driver not wheeling either a Penske or Ganassi entry. Her genuine success, however, was no match for the internal politics of the new “Andretti Autosport”.
It has been long rumored that the team was stretched thin with Marco Andretti settling into his role as the disappointing reminder that the Andretti’s breed. Combined with an IZOD (title sponsor of the series) entry with Ryan Hunter-Reay; Danica was left with the scraps, stretched to their limit with questionable fifth-car entries for Adam Carrol and John Andretti during her final seasons.
Having already tested the stock car waters as early as 2002, Patrick made her competition debut in 2010. As 2011 closed in the most tragic of circumstances of Dan Wheldon’s death in the IndyCar season finale, it was inevitable from an emotional standpoint alone, that Patrick would make her leap to full-time NASCAR competition and put open wheel racing behind her.
Skipper, we’re losing the crowd. Put in out new novelty act, Leela.
Nagdaggit! I already put in the circus clown!
Yeah, but he bunted. Clowns are only funny when they swing away.
— Futurama, “A Leela of Her Own”
I do not blame Danica Patrick for the unnecessary amount of media attention she received upon entering NASCAR competition. People forget that her full-time NASCAR debut coincided with her turning 30, in an era where the average hot-shoe rookie is making their NASCAR debut at the age of 18, with a stunning pedigree of track time ahead of that. Patrick was starting at an age in which most Cup drivers would now have upwards of six to ten seasons under their belt.
She came in during this new era where NASCAR, nor it’s media partners, have the slightest clue how to market a “racing” series. They attach themselves, simply, to the hottest item of the time and ride the wave; and Danica was no exception. Alabama’s new favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was speeding through his worst career seasons, and despite the occasional high moment, it honestly looked like his reign of…I don’t know, tenth best driver, at best…was coming to a close.
Enter, to NASCAR, Danica Patrick. A name with national identity for her work in IndyCar…and to cut the bullshit short, a female in a male-dominated sport. The image sold, with a few could-have-won races in the Nationwide Series on road courses in her lone full season there, she ascended to the Cup Series. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 on the first go with championship-winning Stewart-Haas Racing (starting the previous year with Tommy Baldwin Racing), finishing in the Top-Ten.
Maybe the nay-sayers would be proven wrong. Maybe Danica has what it takes to…
…be very, very average.
At best. Which is fine. Believe me, I would be happy to have marginal career numbers like this if I were, say, a Carl Long-esque type with a team built upon used chassis, engines, and personnel. Especially if I had made an overall discipline switch at a career point where most drivers are locking into the final good drive of their career. To her detriment, though, Patrick is not in 25th-place equipment.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s evolution from the lower-second-tier Haas-CNC Racing to a front-running, championship-winning powerhouse certainly came as a shock to those who thought an ownership role would end Tony Stewart‘s NASCAR career. Instead, they have won two championships and 37 races in their current form, expanding to four teams and making a somewhat successful manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Ford this past off-season.
Through the first eleven races of the season, as of this writing, Patrick is 33rd in points. She leads just two drivers that have started every race in former MMA fighter, Jeffrey Earnhardt and questionable twitter user, Corey LaJoie. With NASCAR’s new “stage points” redacted, Patrick falls ever-so-slightly more to a mere 105 points; compared to last year at this time, when she had scored 188 points. For another comparison, Rookie of the Year candidates Daniel Suárez, Erik Jones, and Ty Dillon range between 217 to 180 with redacted points.
This is not simply “bad luck”, this is career decay; all while Danica stagnates in the upper rear of the pack.
It’s not being recognized by Stewart-Haas, though the recent legal matters with former sponsor Nature’s Bakery have definitely shortened the rope. And, worst of all, Danica has gone from being humble about her position to now painting herself to be twice the driver she has ever been since moving to NASCAR.
I feel absolutely horrible…I feel…I just don’t understand…I just don’t understand, I think, why so much bad luck happens. The laughter is merely just…what can I do but laugh about it? […] Every time I’m doing better, something stupid happens. […] One of these times, one of these accidents isn’t going to go well for me. - Danica Patrick
These words, spoken with a smile and a held laughter occurred while a fellow driver was being extracted with a compression fracture of a vertebrae, highlight what was probably Danica’s worst moment. With one interview, she further divided what remaining fans exist in this age of NASCAR. Doing herself no favors, with the end of her time in the sport closing in; before she starts her new career focus of a series of cross-fit training centers with Jenna Fryer…or whatever…