Danica Patrick’s recent near-win at Daytona in the NASCAR Nationwide series has brought with it a steady stream of respect and compliments for the GoDaddy girl—much more, in fact, than she had likely received to this point in her NASCAR career combined.
However, one issue still lingers.
Will Danica Patrick ever be seen as more than a sideshow? Will she ever be treated as “one of the guys” on the track and off?
If Danica winds up in NASCAR on a full-time basis, the biggest obstacle for her to overcome on the track is experience.
The problem there is that it takes time.
Time in the car.
Knowing what the car needs, knowing the tracks, and knowing how to communicate effectively with her team are giant hurdles to clear in her development. Based off past experience though, she has a good chance at overcoming this.
Her time in INDYCAR and the Nationwide series has provided her with a wealth of experience at a high level of racing. She’s proven this year how quick she can adjust to stock cars. Her three top-10 finishes in the past four Nationwide races she has run have silenced many naysayers.
The fact that she will be in top-notch equipment and be surrounded by some of the best crewmen in NASCAR from the beginning of her stock car career should equate to Danica being regarded as “one of the guys” in the garage.
The bigger challenge will be winning over fans and the media to be seen as “one of the guys” off the track.
Until she is a competitive driver week in and week out, race fans and the media will cover her as “the female driver.”
While this may be unfair, it’s just the way things happen.
However, we can look at three examples from recent years as what may happen to Danica if she were to transition to NASCAR.
The Jeff Gordon Example
Were Danica to immediately start winning or competing for wins, interest and perception of the sport would skyrocket much like it did when Gordon came on the NASCAR scene.
While this is unlikely, it would be the best scenario for all of NASCAR. She is more popular than any other full-time Nationwide driver and has only raced a handful of races. It’s a very easy comparison to Gordon’s debut in the early '90s.
Whether she will be that competitive remains to be seen, but if you are a NASCAR fan, you need to be rooting for her to win. More eyeballs watching Danica means more money for the sport. More money in the sport means better facilities, better amenities and a better product for all fans.
If she follows the Jeff Gordon example, she will most definitely be seen as one of the guys off the track because she will be seen as a winning driver, not a sideshow attraction.
The Juan Pablo Montoya Example
When Montoya signed to drive for Ganassi Racing in late 2006, many fans knew very little about the Colombian driver. He showed some signs of promise right away, won a Nationwide race and Sprint Cup race and was named Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Over time, he became just another driver because while he wasn’t the splashy, dominant racer that Jeff Gordon was when he debuted, he was a consistent driver who was seen as a competent racer.
This is the most likely scenario for Danica. She will likely be moderately competitive, hang around for a while and will be accepted as just another driver.
There’s nothing wrong with this from a racing standpoint, but with so many people and sponsors so heavily invested in her future it could easily be seen as a failed experiment. When a driver is as highly promoted as Danica, mediocrity becomes failure. Just ask Dale Jr.
The Sam Hornish Example
The Hornish experiment has been a failure for Roger Penske.
Hornish was never seen as one of the guys off the track. Instead, he was seen as a wreck waiting to happen by both fans and media alike.
The Danica naysayers will root hard for this to happen. But unlike Hornish, Danica will have sponsors galore that demand she have more time.
If this happens, expect Danica to never be seen as one of the guys, but as “the girl who took a ride from a more talented driver.”
Let’s hope for her sake and for that of NASCAR, the impending Danica experiment never reaches that low.