The Danica Patrick NASCAR Era Begins

Joshua DuncanContributor IFebruary 15, 2010

Saturday was the first race of the NASCAR Nationwide Series season. NASCAR fans everywhere are stoked for the new season, which constitutes 36 races and runs from the middle of February until late November.

Sunday's opener on the Sprint Cup side was won by Jamie McMurray after nearly three hours of delays due to potholes in the pavement.

A good race to be sure, but no one wants to talk about the Daytona 500 or Jamie McMurray right now. Instead, more people are concentrated on Saturday's race and a superstar bigger than any superstar racing has seen in a long long time.

Quick question...does anyone actually know who won the Nationwide race on Saturday? I'll save everyone from having to test your Google skills and tell you that it was Tony Stewart (I'll admit, I had to look it up as well). However, the real story behind that race was not Stewart. It was Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut.

If you don't believe me, believe the newspaper. In Sunday's sports section, they had the 2010 NASCAR preview. The No. 1 story they mentioned was not Jimmie Johnson's pursuit of an unprecedented fifth championship in a row (his current streak of four in a row is already a record). It wasn't about Hendrick Motorsports trying to continue its domination of the Sprint Cup Series.

It wasn't about Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya or any of the other extremely talented drivers trying to end Johnson's record run.  The No. 1 headline in the NASCAR preview section today read, "Danica Patrick can compete with the big boys."

If we look back at Patrick's week, we can see that it was a week full of ups and downs. On the first day of practice, Patrick managed to clock just the 27th fastest time (down). However, on day two of practice she was fifth fastest (up) and ended up qualifying 15th for Saturday's race (also an up).

The good times did not last long, however. Patrick started losing ground almost immediately after the race began, falling from 15th to 18th to 23rd to 27th to 33rd. On more than one occasion, she fought her way back up into the low-mid 20's, but it was clear that she did not have the car, nor the confidence in the car, to compete with the leaders.

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Then on lap 69, she became collateral damage in a wreck that took out 12 cars. The wreck was certainly not her fault, and she did her very best to avoid it, but she had nowhere to go and her day ended. She finished 35th.

I give Patrick all the credit in the world for going out there and trying something new. Racing stock cars is nowhere near the same thing as racing Indy cars. Just ask Sam Hornish Jr., who left open wheel racing for NASCAR a few years ago and has never come close to competing at the NASCAR level.

Or Dario Franchitti, whose journey to NASCAR was so successful that his team was shut down halfway through the 2008 season and resulted in him crawling back to the IndyCar Series with his tail between his legs in 2009. Racing is racing, but comparing stock cars to Indy cars is like comparing apples to oranges—they are just two very different entities.

Anyone who thought that Patrick would come to NASCAR and compete right away was only fooling themselves. This is going to take some time.

My issue here is not that Patrick has decided to try her hand at NASCAR. If she wants to do that, I think that's great. My issue is the amount of coverage she gets without doing anything on the track to justify it. My issue here is headlines like "Danica Patrick can compete with the big boys" after she finished her one and only race with these "big boys" 35th. Let me say it again in case you missed it—she finished 35th!

That's like saying the Slovakian national hockey team can compete with the Canadian national team after Canada beat Slovakia 18-0 in the Olympics on Saturday. Yeah, they sure can compete if your definition of competing is being on the same ice as the Canadian team. That goes the same for Danica Patrick. She was on the same track as Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Clint Boyer, but that is the only way she competed with them.

She was never able to directly compete with them—she never found herself running up front with the leaders. That isn't saying that she won't get there eventually, but she is not to that point yet. Headlines like "Danica Patrick can compete with the big boys" are a little premature. How about we wait until she actually does something on the track before making declarations that she will be a dominate force in NASCAR.

Now, you are reading this and some of you are probably thinking, "He's just a Danica Patrick hater." This is not the case at all. Danica Patrick is a talented driver and is very important to the sport of racing as a whole. All I am saying is that we should not overpraise her until she does something that justifies our praise. I don't care if she's a man, woman, or martian...a 35th place finish should not be celebrated like it is the best thing that ever happened.

If her name was Dan Patrick, and she finished 35th, there would not be one word spoken about Dan. No one would pay any attention to Dan until Dan did something that warranted that attention. I believe we should apply the same standards to Danica that we would anyone else.

Keep racing Danica. When you actually show that you are a competitor in NASCAR, I will be in the front of the line, ready to declare you one of the elite drivers. But you have to show me that you are before I am ready to do that.