Danica, Plusses and Minuses
There’s lots of speculation regarding Danica Patrick’s move to a full-time career in NASCAR. How will she do and what will it mean to the sport and to other women drivers. So let’s look at some indicators that may predict how it will play out.
First, based upon a comparison of her talent and results in IndyCar racing to the talent and results of Sam Hornish Jr. in that series, it doesn’t bode well for Danica in stock car racing at the Cup level. Arguably, she has a great support group around her that many drivers could only dream about having. However, the same could be said for Hornish when he came into NASCAR with Team Penske. Hornish is a driver who had the talent to win eight races in his last 64 starts in IndyCar and get 32 tops fives in those 64 starts (50%) plus an IndyCar championship, yet he has struggled so much in a Cup car. In contrast, Danica managed only one fuel mileage win in 117 starts and no higher a finish in the IndyCar season point standings than fifth. In addition, she managed only 20 top five finishes in those 117 races. With those facts in mind,, why would anyone think Danica’s results will be better than those achieved by Hornish. Her background in racing mirrors Hornish’s in so many ways. They both came up as youngsters running go-karts primarily on road course layouts, not ovals.
So why all the hype? This writer wonders whether she would even have the Cup opportunity if her name was Daniel Patrick or if she was 40 lbs. overweight and homely. In racing today though, bringing sponsorship dollars to a team can often mean more than talent. There are opportunities in series of all types that are available for “funded” drivers. She has a huge fan base and abundant commercial appeal because of her appearance and that means she brings big dollars with her to her NASCAR team. Undoubtedly she will also bring new fans to the sport, those who will attend her races and those who will tune in to watch her on TV.
But what will her long-term impact be if she ends up being a mid-pack driver with even less success than Hornish? In the end, her level of success or lack thereof may have a huge impact on owners considering taking chances on other female drivers. There is no question in my mind that there will be a female driver in Victory Lane in Cup racing within the next ten years. However, I believe it is highly unlikely Danica will be that female and, if she struggles as much as I think she will, she may delay the opportunity for a female driver with more talent and a higher likelihood of being successful in Cup racing to get that chance.
Thus in the plus column, I see Danica being a popular driver who is good for NASCAR in terms of ratings and marketing possibilities. The minus column includes her career in stock cars being detrimental to other more talented female drivers who don’t offer the same package of sex appeal and good looks she offers. Time will tell, of course, but the truth is it is that package that gives her this opportunity more than her talent level.