Danica vs. 'The King' dominates Daytona 500 Media Day
FEB 13, 2014 5:45p ET
It's 10 days before the Great American Race and pundits are more concerned with Richard Petty questioning Danica Patrick's racing ability than anything happening on the track.
Though the King is grateful for the exposure Patrick has brought to NASCAR, Petty quipped to reporters at the Canadian Motorsports Expo on Sunday that it's "a female deal that's driving her" and that the only way she would win a race is "if everyone else stayed home."
It's clear Patrick is not going to be drawn into a he said/she said with the seven-time champion. That would be futile. Petty is beloved by fans, and his resume qualifies him to pontificate on all things NASCAR. Patrick also didn't take the bait when Kyle Petty made less than flattering comments about her last summer.
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Although it would be easy to fire back, Patrick has elected to take the high road.
"The people that matter the most to me are my team, my sponsors, you know, those little 3-year-old kids that run up to you and want a great big hug and say they want to grow up to be like you," Patrick said. "That's the stuff that I really focus on."
And that's not a bad thing. It's those 3-year-olds -- along with their parents and other race fans -- who are fueling Patrick's near eight-figure treasure trove derived from the sale of caps and T-shirts. If Patrick walked away from racing tomorrow, she wouldn't have to worry about putting food on the table. Nor would she be forced to make appearances at Canadian car shows in the middle of winter to bolster her coffers.
Not surprisingly, Patrick brushes off the latest criticism with her standard response: "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion."
But since the King's comments, the second reference that pops up when you Google "Richard Petty" (below the Driving Experience that bears his name) is "Danica Patrick, Richard Petty." This latest viral row has fueled the talk-show circuit in addition to the traditional stock car media outlets. So perhaps, this is good PR for Petty.
"I had media yesterday in New York, so I had plenty of time to think about that because everyone seems to want to know that," former Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. "It must be somewhat of a slow news day, but I think you've got to respect the King for who he is and what he's done for the sport.
"Also that he has a right to his opinion like everyone else, and he makes some pretty strong points when you read his whole transcript, but it's a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race. I wouldn't want to have my name behind that comment, so I think I would probably give that a little more time and see how that one plays out because there are races where I think she could win."
On Thursday, questions pertaining to the King didn't involve his seven Cup titles or if this is the season current champion Jimmie Johnson ties that record. Questions of a comeback year for Richard Petty Motorsports did not take precedent, either. Every conversation concerning the King centered on Patrick.
Aric Almirola, who drives the No. 43 RPM Ford, believes his boss' candor is often misconstrued. But even as a driver who honed his skills in a stock car, Almirola understands the challenge of getting a foothold in the sport. The 29-year-old Tampa native worked his way through NASCAR's feeder series for six years before earning a full-time ride at the Cup level.
"I think that RP's opinionated," Almirola said. "Sometimes he says stuff, and I think it gets taken out of context just because of the way he says stuff. At the end of the day, Danica's got talent. She knows she has talent. If she didn't have any talent at all, she wouldn't be in the position she's in, right? She has talent. There's no doubt about that.
"But for people to put expectations on her, to say that she's going to come in here and win races and contend for a championship, I think is very lofty, especially at this point right now. You look at guys like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. He went all season last year and didn't win a race. He certainly is capable of winning races. He's proved that before. She's never proved that she's won races at this level or against this kind of competition. And I think people underestimate how tough our sport really is."
Patrick was 1 for 115 in the IndyCar Series over a seven-year period. Though she's made 60 starts on the Nationwide tour -- 59 with JR Motorsports -- Patrick ran just one entire season before moving to Cup last year. Earnhardt Jr., who has been analyzed from every direction, defended his former driver, insisting Petty's comments were "a little bit rough." However, he was careful not to take sides and "call out the King, because he's the King."
"He's such a patriarch and an icon in the sport," Earnhardt said. "He has tons of wisdom and insight, a guy that everyone respects. He's done a lot for the sport and still does today. At the same time, Danica deals with more criticism than anybody else has ever faced in the sport. She goes by a different set of rules because of her gender, and that's unfortunate.
"It seems like she's always having to answer to something like that, and that's a pain in her butt. Frankly, it just has to get old. It doesn't bother her. She doesn't show that it bothers her. She's really strong-willed when it comes to those types of things because I guess she's dealt with it from Day 1. ... It's probably nothing new to her."
What is new to Patrick is stock car racing. For 15 years prior to signing on with NASCAR, open-wheel racing was the only discipline she knew. In her first full Cup season, she earned the pole for the Daytona 500 -- which offers her a berth in Saturday's Sprint Unlimited -- posted one top 10 (eighth in the 500) and finished 27th in the point standings.
Ready to start her second season in the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Chevy this week, Patrick will be the first to admit she has a long way to go.
"Stock cars are not my background," Patrick said. "I still feel like I'm figuring stock cars out and will for a long time. I will never stop learning."