To be fair, Danica Patrick likely would not get the attention or criticism she gets if she was a male driver in NASCAR.
Virtually everything she does and says, both on and off the track, is scrutinized—oftentimes far too unfairly.
Compare Patrick to, say, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's now in his 15th full-time Sprint Cup season, and while he's had his share of criticism for not winning championships or, in more recent years, not winning races, Junior has been held above reproach far more than Patrick.
Granted, Patrick draws attention. When videos or stories about her appear online, they're typically the biggest trenders. People just can't seem to get enough of her for a variety of reasons, from being a fan favorite to those who are her harshest critics and consider her nothing more than a novelty.
I have to give Patrick credit: She has endured and put up with more garbage than she should. She realizes her place in the sport, her importance to NASCAR and her sponsors, and she knows that she must toe the line more so than any other driver currently active on the circuit.
But sometimes, when you take a long look at her, you can't help but wonder what she's thinking when she flashes that now-nearly trademark icy stare and just how much she'd love to really say what's on her mind, rather than simply keeping quiet and going forward.
So why is there so much attention being focused on Patrick in her sophomore season on the Sprint Cup circuit? Why is there the perception that she's not going to improve much this season, if not potentially regress?
Is Patrick already in a make-or-break season?
In a sense, I can see why some critics might think that. She's racing for a team that has one guy in Tony Stewart—who just happens to be her boss—who is a three-time Cup champion.
One of her new teammates, Kurt Busch, is the first driver to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup format back in 2004.
And there's her other new teammate, Kevin Harvick, who woulda, coulda, shoulda been a Cup champion during his 13-year tenure with Richard Childress Racing but never managed to seal the deal.
Oh yes, and let's not forget Harvick is a former Daytona 500 winner, and Busch almost won it once but chose to push then-teammate Ryan Newman to the finish line first.
And then there's Danica, whose short list of Sprint Cup achievements boils down to two: earning the pole for last year's Daytona 500 (she'll start from the back of the pack for this year's Great American Race) and finishing eighth in the same race.
The standards against which Patrick is being measured are unlike those of any other young driver out there. I know it may sound trite to say this, but Patrick's boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is also in his second full season on the Cup scene, is most definitely not being measured by the same standards his girlfriend is.
(Of course, Stenhouse does have two Nationwide Series championships to his credit, so that adds to his credibility and lack of criticism.)
Which brings us back to the original premise of this column: Will 2014 be the be-all or potentially the end-all season for Patrick? Even though her contract with Stewart-Haas Racing runs through 2015, if she endures another season like 2013, she may have to reconsider this whole NASCAR deal.
She's still quite young at 31 and could very easily go back to what she knows best: driving an open-wheel car. Former NASCAR competitors Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya have moved back to IndyCar.
Why not Patrick?
But there's also another possibility: Patrick's big boss (over Stewart)—Gene Haas, that is—is doing his best to secure a license to operate a two-car, U.S.-based Formula One team.
You can't help but wonder whether Haas has already at least toyed with the idea that Patrick (as well as his potential F1 team) would be much more valuable and gain more attention from fans and the media worldwide in F1 than in NASCAR.
She'd also do wonders for her current sponsors, including GoDaddy.com, on a global stage.
Patrick is a good driver. Not great, but not bad. She spent last season doing a lot of learning. She made some mistakes, but she also had some good moments—just not enough.
"She's always like a sponge, and those things get overlooked," said crew chief Tony Gibson, per Nate Ryan of USA Today. "She wants to make sure she's using all those tools to get the most out of it. That's how focused and how much desire is there. She just doesn't have the experience right now."
Before last season, I made the bold prediction that Patrick would make the Chase for the Sprint Cup somewhere between her third and fifth season as a full-time Cup driver. I was roundly criticized by many, including some of my media brethren.
But if she can show steady progress in her sophomore season, finish in the top 20 (or at least 22nd, which would still be a marked improvement over last year's finish of 27th), she would close in on that Chase prophecy I had in another year or two. That is, if she sticks around NASCAR.
Will Patrick win a race this season? Many pundits, including Lars Anderson of Sports Illustrated, don't believe so. But I think it's possible, particularly at places like Daytona, Martinsville and potentially Sonoma or Watkins Glen. But if she does win a race, don't immediately expect multiples. She'd likely be one-and-done for 2014.
I honestly and sincerely want to see Patrick succeed. I want her to be judged on the merits of her time behind the wheel, rather than her marketability or her obvious attractiveness.
She is definitely good for NASCAR; I'm just not 100 percent sure that NASCAR is good for her in the long run. Again, I give her credit for taking the bold step forward to prove she belongs, and she's done that somewhat, but not yet fully.
That's why 2014 will be a season where last year's standards of measurement will look like inches compared to the feet or yards she'll be measured by this season.
Then again, she's done a great job of handling the pressure, scrutiny and criticism thus far. Why give in to the haters now?
Better yet, go prove them wrong. Just go about your business, Danica; do your best and hopefully you'll show some marked improvement. And if she's able to do so, hopefully we won't have to ask again in 2015 whether it will be yet another make-or-break season for her.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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