Is NASCAR's Obsession with Danica Patrick Good or Bad for the Sport?

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 12, 2014

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She’s known these days by just one name: Danica.

Danica Patrick is a model, an athlete, a race car driver, an advertising spokesperson and a marketing machine.

Yes, Kyle Petty was right when he said she is a marketing machine. Patrick is one of the more recognized brands in all of sports. 

Patrick is the darling of the mainstream media. This Wisconsin-born petite and perky brunette with the All-American smile and seemingly ever-present optimism has come a long way since May 29, 2005, when she led the Indy 500 and nearly won the thing. It didn’t matter that she finished fourth that day. What mattered was that she set in motion a marketing presence in motorsports, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.

Although Patrick didn’t win that first Indy 500, once the checkered flag fell, she became the driver everyone talked to and about.

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

And the driver who actually won the race? That was Dan Wheldon, who at the time was in the middle of a three-race win streak. He later had T-shirts made to remind people who won the race!

Patrick made appearances on national sports television shows, morning shows and even late-night TV.  

The lid to Pandora’s Box had not just been pushed ajar; it was blown completely off. 

Her phone began ringing off the hook with every kind of endorsement offer. But the real magic became apparent the following weekend when the grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway, usually one of the better crowds for the series, were more crowded than usual. Everyone was coming to see the girl who could play tough with the boys.

Patrick became an overnight sensation. Race promoters plastered her face on billboards, and every radio and television ad mentioned her name. 

This 23-year-old, who started out racing go-karts, became the face of the series. And she liked it. Patrick was the center of attention at every pre- and post-race media event. 

It’s not like the series excluded other drivers. Before she arrived, there was Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti. But Castroneves didn’t get much play outside of racing until he won on television’s Dancing with the Stars. And Franchitti, despite his Indy 500 wins, was always to be actress Ashley Judd’s husband. (They are now divorced.)

Was there resentment among the drivers that the spotlight was on Patrick while they essentially stood in the shadows? When the series would take all 33 drivers from the Indy 500 to New York City for a day of media before the race, three drivers—Patrick, Castroneves and Franchittiwould get all of the attention while the others would be left answering questions like, “What’s it like to race against her (Danica)?” 

If there was any ill will toward Patrick, the others were reminded that “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and eventually there came a realization that all of the viewers she brought to the sport was good for business.

It wasn’t as if she was a bad driver. Team owner Michael Andretti saw she had talent and brought her to his organization in 2007. Everyone figured that if the conditions were right, she might win a race. (She did win eventually at Japan in April 2008 in a fuel-mileage victory over Castroneves.)

Eventually, Patrick began to wear thin with the IndyCar crowd, who, despite their undying affection for her, got tired of her perpetual fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place finishes. Or of her blaming other drivers for her misfortune when there was a wreck. 

Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press

So, as it was, the siren song of stock car racing, which eventually becomes impossible to ignore if you’re an American-born race car driver, lured Patrick to North Carolina. She made a deal with the one person who could best understand how to handleas well as take advantage ofone’s personal popularity: NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (JR Motorsports). 

Stock car fans saw Patrick’s arrival in 2010 for what it was: a big-dollar marketing bonanza. It was going to take more than just the star power gained in IndyCar and a few swimsuit photos to win over the tough and judgmental NASCAR crowd.

After all, NASCAR already had its stars who were bigger, brighter and far more popular than she’d ever been in IndyCar—stars like Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and even Carl Edwards.

Patrick’s first years in stock cars were mostly forgettable, as she raced her way through the K&N Pro, ARCA and Nationwide Series. Along the way, she was fortunate to receive tutelage by some of the sport’s better drivers, including Mark Martin. He took her under his wing, forging a bond that continues with her current team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Her management company, IMG, has taken full advantage of the large stage NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series offered. Her face is back on billboards and television commercials promoting NASCAR’s Cup races from coast to coast.

It is no surprise that Patrick ended up driving for open-wheel veteran Tony Stewart. He too saw talent in Patrick’s driving, as well as the opportunities stemming from the marketing side. However, her career in NASCAR will hinge upon her ability to be competitive.

Nearly every week there is a story in either the sports or mainstream media about Patrick, regardless of whether she did well in the previous weekend’s race. People want to know as much as they can about the intimate details of her relationship with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

She brings regular celebrity attention to NASCAR like no other current driver. Casual NASCAR fans don’t care what she does on the race track. Not even Jeff Gordon was able to garner that kind of regular attention during the height of his career.

Despite what diehard racing fans might think, this is all good for NASCAR. 

Stock car racing has been difficult on open-wheel drivers. Formula One race winner and Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, arguably far more talented than Patrick, came, saw, left and headed back to IndyCar. He was for much of his tenure saddled by Chip Ganassi Racing’s uncompetitive race cars.

AJ Mast/Associated Press

The same might also be said for Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr., who left IndyCar to drive Sprint Cup cars fielded by Roger Penske back when they were not on par with the current crop of Cup cars driven by championship contenders Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. 

One has to ask, “Is the equipment from Stewart-Haas Racing good enough to keep her from being anything other than an honorable mention?”

Maybe NASCAR will tire of Patrick before she figures it all out. Or maybe it won’t. I’m hoping the fans hang in there with her. She wants to do this well, and she knows she can.

A lot of drivers have danced upon the NASCAR stage, mostly with names we have forgotten. There is a list of drivers who have won races. And another list, a smaller one, of drivers who have won championships.

Then, there’s a much smaller list of unforgettables like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Jimmie Johnson and a few others.

It’s unlikely Patrick will make it onto the champion's list. Maybe she'll find her name on the one for winners. She can win her first Cup race on a restrictor-plate track. 

Patrick is working off a different list. It's of women in the sport who were able to achieve success, just like one of the boys. 

Even though she sometimes wears a swimsuit.