by Ryan Isley
Perhaps it is fitting that Danica Patrick grew up in Roscoe, Illinois, just 90 miles from Wrigley Field. And perhaps it is perfect that she has thrown out the first pitch on multiple occasions at a Chicago Cubs game. After all, the Cubs have often been referred to as the “loveable losers.”
In resemblance of the Cubs, Danica hasn’t won much of anything. In fact, the 32-year-old driver has one just one race out of 238 in her professional racing career – the Indy Japan 300 in 2008. But just like the Cubs, Patrick remains immensely popular.
Most people seemed ready to write off Danica’s dismal 2013 season as a learning experience. After all, it was her first full season driving with NASCAR’s big boys on the biggest stage. She limped to a 27th-place finish in the final standings and recorded just a single top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 – the season’s initial race. She also had won the pole for the race, so people thought her Sprint Cup Series career was off to a flying start and would just get better.
Then with the reverberating thud of Danica hitting a wall, reality hit.
She would fail to finish inside the top-10 in any of the season’s next 35 races, with her next-best finish of 12th coming at Martinsville in the sixth race of the season. She would end the season with four finishes inside top-15, while finishing 30th or worse 10 times. Forget winning or even competing, as she led just five laps all season – all at the Daytona 500 – and finished more than halfway back in the field (22nd or worse) 26 times in 36 races. She finished on the lead lap in just 12 races in her rookie season.
The one positive that could seemingly be taken from 2013 was that Danica finished better than she qualified in 23 of the 36 races, while finishing in the same position she qualified twice. Of course, when your average starting position is 30.1 and you start 30th or worse 22 times, there really is nowhere to go but forward. In the 14 races where she started 29th or better, she finished worse than her starting spot eight times.
Entering 2014, one would think that Patrick would show easily recognizable improvement, but to this point it has not happened. She could not rekindle that magic from a year ago at Daytona, starting 27th and finishing 40th in the 2014 Daytona 500 after a crash resulted in her finishing just 145 of the 200 laps. Patrick still led two laps at Daytona, giving her seven laps led at the track in the last two seasons. Patrick backed up the 40th-place Daytona 500 finish with a 36th-place finish the next week at Phoenix, where she finished six laps back.
So far this season, Patrick has just six finishes on the lead lap, which has led to her having just one top-10 finish and only four finishes of 20th or better. She has also led just eight laps (she led six at Talladega after the two she led at Daytona). While her qualifying numbers have been better under NASCAR’s new qualifying system – her average start is now 21.8 – it has not meant much in the end. She has finished higher than she started in just eight of the 16 races and has six finishes of 32nd or worse. After having an average finish of 26.1 last season, she has shown a miniscule improvement this season with an average finish of 25.4.
It isn’t just the finishes that show how much of a non-factor Patrick has been in 2014, either. She has been in the top-15 in 15% or more of the laps in just four races, meaning she runs the majority of the laps nowhere near the front. Compare that to someone unheralded, who is close to Patrick in the standings, such as Aric Almirola, who has run in the top-15 in at least 20% of the laps in 10 of the 16 races.
It has been so bad for Patrick this season that she didn’t even get to participate in NASCAR’s All-Star race in Charlotte. While she wasn’t able to qualify for the $1 million shootout on the track, she would undoubtedly get into the field through the fan vote, as she had in 2013. Or so everyone thought.
What people didn’t count on, however, was the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series Most Popular Driver to be Danica’d by a mostly unknown Josh Wise. While Danica has become popular through her ad campaigns with GoDaddy.com – including a series of commercials with her and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe fighting for votes to become the face of GoDaddy – Wise’s No.98 made its way into the All-Star race thanks to an internet campaign started on Reddit and funded by collecting Dogecoins. Just like that, Patrick (along with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) was on the outside looking in and could do nothing but watch the All-Star race instead of actually competing in it.
But make no mistake – Patrick is still widely popular among some fans. There is a huge faction of people who root for her based on the fact that she is a female. Some like that she can be a role model for younger girls. Some like that she doesn’t take any crap from the other drivers. Some just think she is hot. But one thing they mostly have in common is that her legion of minions do not like anything negative being said about their princess. Oh, and they also like to ignore the facts.
An innocent tweet about the ineffectiveness of Patrick can usually be seen with numerous responses, some not suitable for print. A quick joke about yet another Patrick wreck is met with excuse after excuse about how it isn’t her fault and that the other drivers are out to get her. While they are all too quick to take up the fight for Patrick, their bark is normally worse than their bite, much like their favorite driver.
The five-foot-two ball of fire could best be described as having the looks of a model, the temper of a redheaded Irishman and the mouth of a sailor. If there was ever a case of Napoleon complex in women, you could look no further than the driver of the No.10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.
The thing with Patrick is that no matter her success, or lack thereof, on the track, she is a hit among advertisers. Having the distinction of being the first female to lead the Indianapolis 500 and also the first female to lead a green-flag lap in the Daytona 500, coupled with her unquestionably good looks, she is a marketing dream. While there are other attractive female athletes out there, compared to most of them, Danica Patrick might as well be one of the Angels from Victoria’s Secret.
While the popularity and marketing are great, sports is about winning when all is said and done. For Patrick, winning is something she has yet to be able to do on a regular basis, or at all. After all, she doesn’t even show that she can compete with regularity.
Just like the Cubs, Danica is a product of a lot much hype with very little substance. Ask the “Bleacher Bums” how that formula works out.