Danica Patrick is no race car driver. Kyle Petty says it’s so, so it must be so.
Petty said last week she could go fast but she couldn’t race, and that must be right because Petty won all of eight races in 30 years as a Cup driver, which means he knows a thing or two about not being able to race. When it takes you 173 starts to get your first win, and you go on to average just one win in every 104 starts, you’re uniquely qualified to recognize Just Drivin’ Around Out There Syndrome in those besides yourself.
Just drivin’ around out there is apparently all Danica is doing according to her detractors, and her 23rd place finish at Kentucky on Sunday will only fuel what is, frankly, a threadbare refrain. Go back as far as you want, and you’ll hear its antecedents; Danica Can’t Race was once Lyn St. James Can’t Race was once Janet Guthrie Can’t Race, on and on, Insert Female Racer’s Name Here.
With Danica, of course, the volume is cranked to levels that make your ears bleed, because first IndyCar and later NASCAR saw in her something to sell and sold it shamelessly, and the sponsors followed suit. Now she’s a marketing force who dwarfs far more accomplished drivers – and if that’s given her a sense of undeserved entitlement that tends to rub people the wrong way (and is the primary source of all the Danica Can’t Race jabber), it’s also hardly her fault.
To suggest otherwise is to suggest the ridiculous, which is that, in a sponsor-driven sport, she should have been less aggressive at pursuing sponsors because she hadn’t yet earned their attentions. No racer in a major series – or even a minor series – would even consider such an absurdity. Too many of them remember Al Unser Sr., a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was reduced to begging one May because he had no sponsor dollars to bring to the table.
And so, no, Danica was not going to tell GoDaddy to Go Take A Hike. And for those who grind their molars to dust every time they see her in six TV bits for every one that features, say, Denny Hamlin or Kasey Kahne ... this too shall pass.
If Danica goes two, three, four seasons without putting her sponsors’ colors up front somewhere, she’ll be no different than anyone else. The sponsors will be gone and so will her ride.
For now, she’s just 17 races deep in her first full Cup season, which suggests she’s being subjected to snap judgment her peers never were. No one, if memory serves, ever rendered a verdict on Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth after 17 starts. After all, Danica still has 156 starts left to win her first race and match Kyle Petty’s esteemed record.
In a way, of course, she already has. Neither Petty, nor virtually anyone else, achieved in their first seven Daytona 500s what Danica did in her seven starts at the Indianapolis 500. Six times she finished in the top 10. Twice she finished in the top five. She remains the only woman in IndyCar history to win a race, and she still holds the IndyCar record for most consecutive races running at the finish (50).
In 2009, she finished third at Indy, the highest finish for a woman in the race’s 97-year history. And in her last 500, in 2011, she charged from 25th to the lead with 21 laps to run before finishing 10th.
Imagine what she could have done if she could, you know, actually race.