After wrecking on the 83rd lap of the Sam’s Town 300, Danica Patrick’s nascent NASCAR career can be summarized, in order of finish, as 35th, 31st and 36th.
That said, her first several weeks on the stock car circuit should be seen for what they are: a resounding success. Who else, in the midst of what is still a recession, could make even casual fans care about Nationwide races in February?
It’s worth mentioning that Patrick – who was running third before pitting on lap 74 of Saturday’s race, should not be held culpable for the mishap.
“Completely, 100 percent my fault,” said Michael McDowell, who had a damaged right bumper and was dropping down from the high line when he got in the way of a fast girl with fresh tires.
“Holy s—, he turned down,” she was heard to say over the radio. “That was bull—- … a broken bumper and he’s trying to ——- race!”
By the time Patrick appeared in the garage with her GoDaddy Chevrolet and its crumpled front end, she had calmed down considerably. One imagined NASCAR officials were secretly disappointed, as nothing would’ve created more of a buzz than her seeking to bitch-slap the offending driver.
Instead, the stock car industry would have to make due with expressions of mild regret from its prettiest and most volatile rookie.
“It would’ve been nice to have a decent finish,” she said. “I was feeling better and better all the time.”
Actually, taken in another context, Patrick’s showing can be argued as a kind of victory. By running well for as long as she did, Patrick dispelled the memory of her tentative performance (something nobody wants to see, a tentative Danica) last week in California.
“Fontana,” she said, “was a real humbling experience. But I guess it was probably good that I went there because I got to go there again. So I might as well figure it out.”
In other words, she gave the people something to look forward to when she returns from IndyCar racing in June. “California was a fluke. Today she showed what she’s really made of,” said crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who, despite the wreck, added that “she come here and she done what she needed to do.” If that seems a bit of an overstatement, understand that everything about Patrick’s NASCAR debut has been overblown. The idea of her first three Nationwide races as a reliable forecast of her future is preposterous.
Consider the best-known open wheel racers, and how they fared in NASCAR’s second-tier series. Sam Hornish Jr. ran in nine Nationwide races before making his Sprint Cup debut in 2008. His order of finish: 36th, 43rd, 31st, 35th, 15th, 25th, 43rd, 25th, 31st. Juan Pablo Montoya ran 11th, 28th and 34th at the end of the 2006 season.
If you’re looking for a longer apprenticeship, consider Tony Stewart. In ’96, he ran nine times and didn’t finish in the top 15. The following season, a year that saw him win an IndyCar championship, he competed in five Busch series races, crashing in three. It wasn’t until ’98, when he signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, that Stewart had any appreciable success, finishing in the top five in 22 starts.
So who cares if Danica Patrick wrecked in her third race?
Actually, everybody does. She’s hot-tempered and fine-looking and if she’s exploiting or sexualizing her own innate assets, well, so be it. At Friday’s media session, Patrick — who left home at 16 to compete in England — was asked if she’d have been as successful if she hadn’t posed in a state of spectacularly immodest dress for the magazine FHM back in 2003.
“I feel comfortable with everything I’ve done and had fun with it," she said. “That’s just my style. I do things that are interesting and fun and show a little bit of my personality."
As these exchanges go, it was typical: a good question followed by a disingenuous answer. After all, her primary sponsor has put more cleavage in the Super Bowl than Janet Jackson.
Besides, NASCAR isn’t the most American of endeavors by accident. It’s all about sponsorship and marketing. And if some drivers are upset at the attention she commands, it’s only because Danica Patrick has done a superlative job in branding herself. The rest of NASCAR can’t wait until June.