It’s fair to say that Danica Patrick’s flirtation with NASCAR has gotten off to a challenging start, at least the on track part of it. In five NASCAR Nationwide Series starts, she has only one finish better than 30th, a 24th last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Driving for JR Motorsports, a front-running team that has shown its capable of winning races, Patrick is 61st in NNS points, trailing 15 other drivers who have made the same number of starts or fewer than she has.
On the flip side, Patrick’s presence in NASCAR has given a much-needed ratings boost to the Nationwide Series. Her souvenir trailers are consistently mobbed and she has brought a lot of attention to herself and NASCAR at a time when interest is declining.
At her day gig with Andretti Autosport, Patrick is 11th in the IZOD IndyCar points standings heading into this weekend’s race in Toronto. She has one top-five finish in her open-wheeler, a second at Texas.
With the 2010 racing schedule at roughly the halfway point, how should Patrick’s performance be evaluated? To answer that, we brought in Tom Jensen, SPEED.com’s editor-in-chief and Marshall Pruett, SPEED.com’s auto racing editor.
GRADE PATRICK’s NASCAR SEASON TO DATE.
JENSEN: Incomplete. Like those racy GoDaddy.com ads that hint at a lot and show next to nothing, Patrick’s NASCAR season to date so far has been a frustrating tease. To her credit, she has consistently improved as the weekends go on, but she is starting at such a deficit in terms of seat time that’s it hard to evaluate what she ultimately will or won’t deliver. The jury is still out.
PRUETT: F (as in F-ailure to prepare). Has any driver from the world of open-wheel or sportscar racing come to NASCAR more under prepared than Patrick? Her total lack of respect for stock car racing has shown in how little she’s gotten to know the technical aspects of the ARCA and NNS machines she’s driven. She was impressive in her debut, taking a proverbial gun to a knife fight, but since then, her success or failure has been left entirely to her crew chief. Patrick readily admits she knows nothing about the cars, and until she does her homework and can help Tony Eury Jr. to improve the car, she’ll be stuck somewhere between 20th and 30th wherever they go.
GRADE PATRICK’s IZOD INDYCAR SEASON TO DATE.
PRUETT: D (as in “D-isappearing Danica”). Gone is the steady, positive and content driver who finished fifth in the 2009 IZOD IndyCar Series championship – ahead of all her teammates – and took 8 top-6s from 17 races. Whether it was the work of a hypnotist or a prescription for Prozac last year, DP’s demeanor has taken a big step back in 2010, as witnessed by her venomous outburst aimed at her Andretti Autosport team at Indy.
Since then – and we’re only talking about two months – she’s become the black sheep of the Andretti team. Team leader Tony Kanaan refuses to acknowledge her, much less speak to the tantrum-prone starlet. Ryan Hunter-Reay smiles and ignores her. Marco Andretti shrugs and daydreams about swimsuit models. Team owner Michael Andretti, on the other hand, remains thankful for the enormous sponsor checks that Patrick delivers.
It’s the Real Housewives of New Jersey-meets-IndyCar racing, but with more in-fighting, hidden agendas, bad manners and lowered expectations.
As long as Patrick refuses to take her meds and remains stuck in her doom and gloom personality, she’ll continue to underwhelm in IndyCar and NASCAR. If she can get back to the “Princess Sparkle Pony” persona (credit SPEED’s Tommy Kendall for that one — best line ever spoken by a Wind Tunnel guest) of ’09, maybe she can start making headlines again for all the right reasons.
JENSEN: C. I will defer to my colleague’s judgment on this, but with the exception of Patrick’s runner-up at Texas, she certainly hasn’t looked like a threat to win with any kind of regularity. The most damning indictment, in my book, is that she trails all three of her full-time Andretti Autosport teammates in points. HAS SHE DONE BETTER, WORSE OR AS EXPECTED IN NASCAR?
JENSEN: As expected. Anyone who thinks Patrick has done worse than expected in terms of results, doesn’t understand how difficult it is to make the transition from low-weight, high-downforce cars, to high-weight, low-downforce ones.
Truthfully, Patrick hasn’t been very good so far. But she has so little seat time, it’s unrealistic to think that she’d be much better by now. And that’s especially true if you consider how guys like Sam Hornish Jr., Scott Speed and many others have struggled moving from open-wheel cars to tin tops.
PRUETT: As expected. I don’t know if anyone – other than DP and her handlers – expected more than what she’s done to date in NASCAR. If this was the basketball, she’s done the equivalent of making the leap to the NBA with a year of community college under her belt. Unlike Franchitti and Hornish – two drivers who switched to NASCAR after climbing to the top of the open-wheel world, Patrick hasn’t learned how to be a team leader, how to be a regular winner or how to setup her own cars. Dipping her toes in NASCAR with such a low level of open-wheel education – the sport she’s been in for over a decade -- was always a recipe for disaster.
OVERALL, WAS TRYING NASCAR A GOOD IDEA?
PRUETT: Yes and No. Yes in the sense that she’s cashed in a whole new level of money. As a professional athlete, she ‘took her skills’ to the one form of motorsport where sponsors would overpay to have her drive. It has also helped to drive television ratings up (most of the time) as people tune in to watch the spectacle of Patrick trying to tackle a foreign world in cars that are foreign to her.
Danica’s diehard fans would watch her race wheelbarrows if that’s what she wanted to do, but her NASCAR experiment has also come with a tarnished reputation. Judging Patrick’s talent has long been a sport of its own – just how good is she? There have been plenty of excuses and exceptions to fall back on up till now – she’s young, she’s inexperienced, she needs a better engineer and so on. Now that she’s been taken out of her element, placed in a top NASCAR team and given the best equipment, the covers have been pulled back and an incomplete driver has been exposed.
As I mentioned earlier, her move to NASCAR – and any open-wheel driver’s move, for that matter – requires a lot of preparation, education and technical understanding before setting foot into a car for the first time. Had she done that, we might be talking about Patrick as more than just a sideshow. As it stands today, Patrick is a cautionary tale for any open-wheeler considering a move to NASCAR.
When “look at what Danica did and do the complete opposite” is the best piece of advice that can be given, you know something’s wrong.
JENSEN: Yes. Patrick’s presence in the sport has done a lot of good things. She brought desperately needed sponsorship money to JR Motorsports. She drove sharply higher television ratings, initially. She is a good role model for young women who want to race. All of those are strong plusses.
Where I think she’s fallen down is there seems to be a huge disconnect between her own expectations and what she has been able to deliver on the track. She is an intense competitor who at Chicagoland basically said she has no idea of what she’s doing in a stock car. She needs to give herself more time to learn these cars and develop a feel for them. The more she tries to force the issue, the more frustrated she will become. The more frustrated she becomes, the less successful she will be.
WHERE DOES PATRICK ULTIMATELY END UP?
JENSEN: IndyCars. In the end, I don’t think Ayrton Senna could have become a top-flight Sprint Cup driver just by spending two seasons racing one-third of the schedule in the Nationwide Series. No way, no how.
Will Patrick be a better stock car driver by the end of 2011? Of course she will. Will be she be ready to move to a full-time Sprint Cup gig when her contract with Andretti Autosport is over after the 2012 season? Honestly, I don’t see it happening.
PRUETT: NASCAR. Patrick’s backers have seen and tasted the difference between NASCAR TV ratings and IndyCar TV ratings, and also how many people pay to sit in the grandstands. It costs more to play in NASCAR, but since her move to Andretti’s team from Rahal Letterman Racing, Patrick’s place in IndyCar has been driven solely by sponsorship.
Even Michael Andretti, a BIG fan of money, is showing signs that that he’s tiring of the princess’ antics. The fact that he’s now running a fifth car for Adam Carroll, a relatively unknown open-wheeler from Ireland, to strengthen his team speaks volumes about just how little Patrick does for their competitive efforts. She’s the golden goose – no one would take her unless she has a big sponsorship check in hand, and knowing that, I can’t see how GoDaddy.com and Co. will keep her in open-wheel.
As we’ve seen, Danica is mentioned non-stop in NASCAR broadcasts, even when she’s barely out running the pace car. It’s pure magic for her sponsors – guaranteed footage of their driver and their logos - no matter how well she is (or isn’t) running. Sponsors are all about numbers. Why pay a fortune to be seen by a half-million open-wheel viewers when you can spend that same fortune to get in front of the massive NASCAR nation. This is a no-brainer. Goodbye Indy 500; hello Brickyard 400.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.
Marshall Pruett is SPEED.com’s Auto Racing Editor, and also covers IndyCar and sportscar racing for the site. Pruett grew up at ‘Pruett's Olde English Garage,’ his father's shelter for abused foreign cars, and spent his childhood being dragged across the West Coast to help with his dad's amateur racing exploits.
Pruett spent 20 years working in the IRL, CART, IMSA, and most of the known open-wheel feeder series before retiring from active duty in 2001. And in case you were wondering, he isn’t related to Scott Pruett.
Marshall lives in Northern California with his wife Shabral, and can be emailed . He can also be harassed on Twitter .