Three months ago, Danica Patrick was on top of the American motorsports world.
She could do no wrong, generating enormous hype and reaping incalculable exposure for her and her sponsors with her much ballyhooed NASCAR debut.
Whether she wrecked – which she did often – or ran well, she was the talk of the motorsports world as she began her grand experiment with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.
She was so popular that fans flocked to her souvenir haulers at Daytona, California and Las Vegas. Her venture into NASCAR was so intriguing that her every move was chronicled, requiring press conferences nearly every time she turned a practice lap.
As a result, Patrick entered the Izod IndyCar Series with huge expectations and the glare of a spotlight brighter than she has ever seen before – brighter even than the flashbulbs of those Sports Illustrated cameras that shot her famous swimsuit spread last year.
Three months later, her spotlight is still aglow, but it is not casting the beloved Patrick in a very positive light. Instead, it is casting a bit of a shadow over her racing career and sparkling image.
A year after finishing fifth in the IndyCar Series standings, she is off to a terrible start, with just one top-10 finish in five races and sitting 16th in the standings.
She has struggled so much that she is fourth on her own Andretti Autosport team, trailing teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (fourth), Tony Kanaan (eighth) and Marco Andretti (13th) in the standings.
After her slow start, Patrick couldn’t wait to get to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the biggest stage on the American auto racing scene and the hallowed grounds where she first made a name for herself.
Indy is where Danica became Danica. She finished fourth in the 2005 Indy 500, sparking her popularity and putting her driving talent and vast potential on display.
Last year, she finished third at Indy, sparking her to a career-best fifth in the final standings and arousing her tantalizing flirtation with NASCAR.
After getting off to such a slow start this year – a difficult NASCAR debut, coupled with her IndyCar struggles – Indy seemed like a homecoming for Patrick, a return to comfortable surroundings where she has shined in front of her most loyal fans.
Instead, things have turned into a nightmare.
After struggling in practices throughout the month, Patrick qualified 23rd, her worst qualifying run ever for the Indy 500.
She then made matters much worse by sticking her pretty little foot in her mouth.
Patrick blamed her poor performance on her team in an interview broadcast over the track PA system, saying she had “a good car with a bad setup,” and adding, “It’s not my fault. The car is not good.”
Her comments didn’t go over well in front of the Indy faithful. Suddenly, the series’ most popular driver was being booed like Kyle Busch.
Kanaan, her own teammate, told reporters that Patrick need to “change her attitude” while headlines blared such declarations as “It’s time for Patrick to shut up and drive.”
Patrick said she was “blown away” by the fan reaction. She shouldn’t have been. When you create that much hype and such high expectations, when the spotlight is that bright, one slip-up can bring the whole world crashing down on you.
That seems to be what’s happening to Patrick right now, as her blossoming career looks to be wilting before her very eyes.
So what is wrong with the darling of the motorsports world?
NASCAR. That’s what’s wrong.
Patrick’s experiment with stock cars has clearly backfired, taking away her focus from her IndyCar team and causing her to struggle in the form of racing she was on the verge of mastering.
Patrick spent much of the offseason and the early part of this year preparing for her NASCAR career. She spent all of February testing and practicing stock cars for races at Daytona, Las Vegas and California.
When she arrived at IndyCar preseason testing in late February, she immediately struggled and was off her game. And she’s been off it ever since.
Patrick was the top driver on her team last year and was expected to resume that role this season. Instead, she is fourth-best.
And while Michael Andretti’s team has struggled a bit, Hunter-Reay has a victory and two of the four drivers are in the top 10 in points.
Though Patrick has been away from the NASCAR circuit for the past three months, she has been communicating with JR Motorsports and has at least been thinking about and preparing for her return in June 26, when she will run the first of eight or nine more Nationwide Series races this year.
That preparation likely has taken away from her focus on her IndyCar team.
Patrick insists that it hasn’t.
“I think that’s just a really easy thing to look at, an easy thing to point to and an easy excuse,” Patrick said recently. “I don’t think there’s anything to it.
“I keep going back to in the old days, race-car drivers drove all kinds of race cars and nobody thought it took anything away. In fact, it should be adding. It’s just an unfortunate situation and there’s no other answer.”
Times have changed, though, since the days when A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti succeeded at going back and forth between Indy cars and stock cars.
In fact, very few drivers have successfully made the transition in recent years, which is what made Patrick’s attempt at NASCAR such a big story.
The difference between stock-car racing and IndyCar racing is like the difference between polo and water polo – they’re completely different animals. And making the transition has been an insurmountable challenge for some of the top open-wheel drivers in the world.
Only one driver who came from a pure Indy car, open-wheel background has successfully made the switch in recent years – Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya, who came from IndyCar and Formula One, has won a NASCAR Cup race and made the Chase For The Sprint Cup last year.
Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart, the other former open-wheelers who have been successful in NASCAR, didn’t just race Indy cars. Gordon also came from off-road truck racing while Stewart was a star in USAC sprint cars – both disciplines that translate well to stock cars.
Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time Indy car champion, has struggled mightily in stock cars and his third Sprint Cup season is not going well.
Dario Franchitti, another former IndyCar champ, also failed to make the transition (though he probably didn’t get a fair try due to a lack of sponsorship) before heading back to the IndyCar Series.
If those championship-caliber drivers struggled, the odds of Patrick making it are indeed long.
Especially if she’s trying to race both cars in the same season.
Patrick was criticized and warned by other drivers, including Montoya, about attempting to run NASCAR and IndyCar races in the same season.
Montoya says the cars are so different that it’s simply too difficult to jump from one to the other.
It took Montoya a full year of testing and racing and his complete focus to get the hang of stock cars.
That’s what it will take for Patrick, too. And unless she is willing to give up her IndyCar career and focus solely on stock cars, she won’t make it.
Or, unless she gives up on the idea of driving stock cars, her IndyCar career will continue to suffer.
Eventually, Patrick will have to make a choice – stock cars or Indy cars – because, as she’s now learning, racing both won’t work.