Danica Patrick really should not take all the blame for her wretched rookie season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
After all, she gained her full-time ride with Stewart-Haas Racing based more on a marketing myth than on merit. What was she supposed to do? Turn down the opportunity?
Now that her first full season in Sprint Cup is in the books, however, is it too soon to admit that the Patrick stock-car experiment is already a failure?
Sadly, the answer is probably not.
There is a chance Patrick will begin to turn it around in 2014 and in seasons yet to come, but the fact is that she was rushed into NASCAR's top national touring series before she was ready. And another fact she and NASCAR and SHR may not yet be willing to admit is that she may never be a driver who does much more than very occasionally run up front, even in top-notch equipment.
Patrick's rookie Cup season began with great promise. She became the first woman ever to win the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500, and followed that up with a strong showing in the Great American Race itself when she became the first woman to lead laps in NASCAR's showcase event.
In fact, Patrick was running third heading into the final lap when she got schooled by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others with far more experience in the tricky world of restrictor-plate racing. She nonetheless earned accolades from Earnhardt after finishing eighth.
"She's going to make a lot of history all year long. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress," Earnhardt told ESPN.com after the race. "Every time I've seen her in a pretty hectic situation, she always remained really calm. She's got a great level head. She's a racer. She knows what's coming. She's smart about her decisions. ... I enjoy racing with her."
Unfortunately for Patrick, the 500 proved to be the highlight of the season for her. Over the final 35 races, she never again finished in the top 10.
Her final numbers, quite honestly, were brutal. She finished 27th in the point standings—well behind her boyfriend and fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.—and finished on the lead lap in only 12 of 36 races overall.
Patrick spent five years driving for car owner Michael Andretti in the IndyCar Series, where she won one race on a fuel-mileage gambit but reaped far more rewards in the marketing game away from the track.
By the time Patrick made the full-time leap into NASCAR in 2012, she was unquestionably a superstar in terms of ability to bring sponsorship dollars and, NASCAR hoped, more fans to her new discipline of motorsports.
The sponsorship money from GoDaddy.com followed her. The fans did not.
Sure, she might have put a few in the seats at first. And her finish in the 500 no doubt was inspiring to some young girls around the country.
But to have a real impact, you have to have staying power and you have to be competitive on at least a semi-consistent basis. Patrick faded from the public consciousness as the season progressed and her struggles mounted. By the end of it, she was largely irrelevant in the big picture.
At one point last June, former Sprint Cup driver and current television analyst Kyle Petty stated bluntly and famously on Speed's Race Hub program that "she's not a race car driver."
According to SportingNews.com, Petty then added: "Danica has been the perfect example of somebody who can qualify better than what she runs. She can go fast, but she can't race. I think she's come a long way, but she's still not a race-car driver. And I don't think she's ever going to be a race-car driver."
Might it have been different if her handlers hadn't rushed her to Sprint Cup after only 58 races and just one full season in the Nationwide Series? Well, that's hard to say. But it couldn't have been much worse.
Now she heads into 2014 as the driver of what clearly is the fourth car in a four-team stable at Stewart-Haas, which added drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch while jettisoning Ryan Newman after last season.
Hey, last time we checked, didn't Ryan Newman win one of NASCAR's biggest races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last July? Isn't that where Patrick used to race in open-wheel cars, too? And how many wins did she register there?
Patrick is not always what she appears. In most interviews, at least since coming to NASCAR, she has been charming, funny and surprisingly honest.
She is an attractive woman who is now 31 years old. She's a marketing machine. Those are facts.
But let's face it: She's not that great of a race car driver (although she is, in fact, by definition one regardless of what Kyle Petty says). She wasn't that great in the IndyCar Series and she's certainly not in stock cars.
And that's not likely to change dramatically for the better anytime soon, if ever.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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