Waltrip: “Even if she never drives again, Danica has changed the face of NASCAR and been great for the sport.”
CHARLOTTE, NC – Danica Patrick on Tuesday announced she will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, but she did not disclose any future driving plans.
Below, FOX NASCAR analyst and Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and reporter Jamie Little (who has covered Patrick since her early days in the IndyCar Series and covered her pit when Patrick became the first female ever to lead the Indianapolis 500) discuss Patrick’s tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing and her impact on the sport.
FOX SPORTS: If Danica Patrick never competes in NASCAR again, what will her legacy in the sport be?
Waltrip: “Danica Patrick has been the most successful female driver in NASCAR, by far, and that’s something to be extremely proud of. I’m not sure this is the end of her driving career. That remains to be seen. She is world-famous with a name recognized across the globe and well outside NASCAR. She has done a tremendous job marketing her brand and has developed a great reputation. On the track, Danica has shown she can compete with the best, although not necessarily every week like she would have liked. Even if she never drives again, Danica has changed the face of NASCAR and been great for the sport.”
Little: “If she never races again, Danica truly made an impact not just in motorsports but in the world of sports. She proved a woman can compete with the men. Danica is the total package of determination, drive, femininity and athleticism. She has inspired a generation of girls, young and old.”
FOX SPORTS: How important is Danica Patrick’s fan base to NASCAR?
Waltrip: “Danica’s fan base is huge to the sport. I give Jeff Gordon a lot of credit for creating a youth movement in NASCAR back in the early 1990s. By the same token, Danica has been responsible for a lot of aspiring female and male drivers of the future setting goals for themselves. She has done a good job creating interest in the sport. When she runs or qualifies well, I hear from people everywhere.”
Little: “Danica’s fan base in NASCAR is huge. Many people have lost sight of what she does on a weekly basis, competing with the men and doing it in the face of utmost scrutiny. Folks lose sight of how many people watch our shows or come to the race track because she is racing. It was a big loss to IndyCar when she moved on to NASCAR, and it will be an even bigger blow to NASCAR if she walks away. Even if people don’t follow racing closely, they tune in when Danica makes history or simply out of curiosity.”
FOX SPORTS: Is there another young female driver poised to assume a similar role in the next couple of years?
Waltrip: “Danica is an inspiration to a lot of young female drivers and young girls in general. Heck, young male drivers, for that matter, as well. Kids in particular look up to her. When someone like her with a team like the powerhouse she has driven for doesn’t meet expectations, it is discouraging to anyone trying to start their driving career. But the future doesn’t hinge on one person. Another female driver will come along with the necessary credentials that cause a team owner to take a chance and put her in the car.”
FOX SPORTS: With the exodus of several high-profile drivers from full-time competition in recent years and the possibility of Patrick not competing in 2018, what steps would you like to see NASCAR make to ensure the future of the sport?
Waltrip: “NASCAR needs to be working on a plan to keep these drivers involved in the sport long after they retire from driving. Don’t let them do what Carl Edwards has done – step out of the car and rarely be seen at the track again. Jeff Gordon has done a good job of staying involved with his analyst role with FOX NASCAR and with other in-sport obligations. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be in the broadcast booth. Tony Stewart promotes dirt racing. It’s crucial to keep these drivers involved because they have fans, and it will impact the sport if they walk away and are never heard from again. If you have a young, up-and-coming driver that fans don’t know well, pair them with a veteran like those who have retired and have them work together in various capacities. Fans might not know who the young kid is, but they’ll recognize the older one standing alongside him.”
FOX SPORTS: How has Patrick’s performance at Stewart-Haas Racing compared to initial expectations?
Waltrip: “If I was being a critic, which I’m not because I have a lot of respect for Danica, she has been given some great opportunities the past few years. SHR has done an incredible job of providing her the cars and crew chiefs to be successful, so if I was a critic, I’d say she has had some golden opportunities but never took advantage of them.
“However, the expectations were enormous when she came into the sport. But in some people’s eyes, and probably hers, she has not competed at the anticipated level. What she has accomplished is the best she could do under the circumstances at this time in the sport. You have to perform, whether you’re a legend like Richard Petty, or a female with incredible marketing potential. You must put up the numbers for sponsors and owners or they will start looking elsewhere.”