Published August 29, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Danica Patrick lost her 63rd consecutive IndyCar race Sunday at Sonoma, and if you didn't already know her record is now 1 for 112, there's an entire website that obsessively tracks her lack of progress and touts her as "OVER-HYPED And UNDER-DESERVING!"
It's not a new site, but since announcing last week that she'll move full-time to NASCAR next season, the haters have been out in full force with scathing commentary and scrutiny that seems downright sexist.
It's doubtful anyone has ever paid attention to what five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has worn to a press conference, but one publication noted that Patrick wore "orange hooker heels" to last Thursday's announcement. She's been referred to by her married name, Mrs. Paul Hospenthal, called "Mrs. Arrogant," and had her underwhelming IndyCar statistics repeated again and again as fans debate whether she deserves a NASCAR ride.
It's been mean-spirited, unfair, and worst of all, off the mark.
In auto racing, talent and performance are not the most important job requirements, unlike any other professional sport. It's money, especially in heavily marketed NASCAR.
Nobody gets a job driving race cars at the top level without sponsorship, and those who successfully find a corporate partner will always get the rides. Every single week, in a series somewhere, there's a driver on the track only after finding enough sponsorship to buy the seat for that particular race.
Eight months ago, Kevin Conway was on the stage in Las Vegas collecting his reward as the Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year. Nevermind that nobody had ever heard of Conway before he overnight became a driver in NASCAR's top division, or that his resume probably wouldn't have warranted a tryout.
Conway, it turned out, is a skilled marketer and put together a sponsorship package that landed him on the same race track as some of the best drivers in the world. He didn't win a race, didn't notch a single top-20 finish, and in 28 starts, he finished higher than 30th only four times.
Yet there he was, rookie of the year, and as such, eligible to run the All-Star Race this past May.
There was some snickering, but nothing close to the venom that's routinely spewed at Patrick.
Patrick and her marketing team have mastered the auto racing business model, creating a lucrative and long-term relationship with GoDaddy.com. Now, GoDaddy.com chairman Bob Parsons is willing to move that money to NASCAR, where she'll race a full-time Nationwide schedule with JR Motorsports, plus eight-to-10 Cup races with Stewart-Haas Racing.
We're supposed to believe teams shouldn't cash the checks because Patrick's statistics don't stack up?
Or do they?
Through 20 career Nationwide races with JRM, Patrick has three top-10 finishes, a career-best finish of fourth at Las Vegas and led 13 laps at Daytona.
Patrick's first top-10 came in her 15th career start. By comparison, IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. had no top-10s in 11 Nationwide starts before he went to Cup, and Dario Franchitti had no top-20s in four Nationwide starts before he moved up. Although there were skeptics as to how they would perform at NASCAR's top level, neither Franchitti nor Hornish were accused of not deserving a Cup ride.
Then again, neither has ever attracted as much attention as Patrick.
She has done a remarkable job of building her brand, and with it comes a public interest that reaches far beyond the die-hard race fan. Her six top-10s in seven career Indianapolis 500 starts pumped life into that race and is proof enough that she can handle high speeds and race on ovals on the biggest of stages.
With each of those runs came more eyeballs, whether it's to televised races, newspaper articles or Web hits, and when someone drives traffic that way, they will always get attention.
Maybe that's unfair to the Justin Allgaiers of the world, the kind of drivers who fight and claw for a shot and consistently fall short of that one big break because of a lack of sponsorship. There's always going to be that obscure driver who guts out a gritty career-best finish, only to be overshadowed by a juicer story.
But it's the system that's the problem, not Patrick. She played it perfectly, regardless of what she has or has not done on the race track.
On Sunday night, three days after making her NASCAR plans official and opening herself to a fresh round of attacks, she closed the week with a 21st-place run on the road course at Sonoma. Disappointed, Patrick quickly focused on the future, promising to return and do better — next time as a NASCAR driver.
"It's tough days like today that I am extra appreciative of my fans," she posted on her Twitter page. "I will be back to redeem myself....but it will have a roof."
Follow Jenna Fryer on Twitter: www.Twitter.com/JennaFryer