After five years with Stewart-Haas Racing, Danica Patrick has announced she’ll be leaving the team and, with that, maybe even leaving the sport of NASCAR altogether. With her future yet to be decided, and her competitive spirit still as ferocious as ever, Lee Spencer evaluates what’s next for NASCAR’s only girl racer; a driver whose legacy will live on for a long time to come, whatever she decides to do next.
Winemaker? Fashion designer? Race car driver?
What’s a woman to do?
If she’s Danica Patrick, then it’s easy to have it all.
Since moving to NASCAR’s premier series in 2013, Patrick has expanded her portfolio beyond motorsports. A love of wine combined with her curiosity about oenology led Patrick to purchase property in Napa Valley that became Somnium Vineyard. Her commitment to fitness, along with a passion for fashion, culminated in the introduction of an athletic clothing line – Warrior, by Danica Patrick – earlier this year.
But when it comes to racing, Patrick’s top bucket list item remains unfulfilled. She still wants to win a race in NASCAR. The dilemma? Patrick is currently without a ride for 2018, having announced her impending departure from Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.
“If I don’t do Cup, I don’t think I’ll do anything because my only goal is to win in Cup,” Patrick said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “My goal is to be one of the only drivers to win in Cup and IndyCar. So, that’s attained through winning in the Cup Series. That’s my goal.
“If I don’t think there’s a solid potential for that to happen, I’m just spinning my wheels.”
Patrick’s presence in NASCAR has been beneficial to the sport. In an era where diversity is embraced, Patrick is the only female to compete at the top level of the sport. Her 183 starts in Cup are unmatched. In 2012, she became just the second woman to win a pole in the Xfinity Series, and the first since Shawna Robinson in 2004. Patrick is the only female to win a pole in Cup (2013), score seven top-10s and lead 64 laps.
When Patrick revealed her status for next season, Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion, tweeted, “She will go down as the best female NASCAR driver of all time. Will likely take decades to see anyone even challenge her legacy.”
Her team owner Tony Stewart posted on Facebook, “I’ve always been a believer in Danica’s ability as a race car driver and that continues to be the case. She’s one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. She has never backed down from a challenge. In fact, she’s sought out new challenges throughout her career, and that’s what brought her to NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing.”
While Stewart wasn’t a hands-on type of coach, according to Patrick, he was instrumental in charting her course through NASCAR.
“Well, pretty much as long as I’ve been in NASCAR he’s been a part of it,” Patrick told Mobil 1 The Grid of her relationship with Stewart. “Even as early as my part-time NASCAR with Jr. Motorsports, and then in the transition to full-time. The plans were in the works to go to his team for almost the entire time. He’s been a part of it all. Pretty much my entire existence in NASCAR has had to do with him indirectly or directly. So, I’m grateful.
“He’s an encourager, but I wouldn’t say that he’s a driving coach or setting up the cars or anything like that. There have been others who have given me more help as far as driving goes. And not everyone can teach. So everybody has their abilities. I can’t be taught anything in NASCAR if I’m not here, and he’s the reason – a very big reason – why I’m here.”
Stewart knows from experience that the transition from open wheel to stock cars is not easy. While other drivers came to NASCAR from a USAC background, Stewart was the only one to win both IndyCar and Cup championships. He admires Patrick’s resolve.
“She had the courage to do so and put up better numbers than a lot of other drivers who have tried to make the same transition,” Stewart added.
Some of the most seasoned open wheel drivers, including champions Dario Franchitti from IndyCar and World of Outlaws’ Steve Kinser, made runs at NASCAR. However, neither Franchitti nor Kinser had the calibre of equipment that Patrick has had at her disposal.
Still, Patrick understands the challenges of breaking into NASCAR, no matter what the gender of the driver.
“At the end of the day, just as I have had to do – and anyone that comes after me will have to do – they’ll have to prove themselves,” Patrick said. “They’ll have to bring a lot to the table and work really hard. Nothing that anyone after me brings will be simple and easy. It will be work, just as it’s work for every guy. You have to be lucky. You have to catch the right moment with the right ride. But when the opportunity presents itself, you need to be ready.”
Since entering the ranks in 2010, Patrick has certainly made her presence felt in the sport. As she reflects on her accomplishments in stock car racing, Patrick recounts her 2013 Daytona 500 pole as topping the list. She went on to finish eighth in the race – her first top-10 finish in NASCAR’s premier series.
“The one that will stand out is qualifying on pole for the Daytona 500, as the media results of that were something like winning the fourth biggest race of the year, even though it’s just for qualifying,” Patrick said. “That one will be the biggest one that will stand out.
“There have been lots of little races along the way that I have felt have been much more difficult and much more representative of the hard work that I’ve put into the sport. But those don’t stand out because those weren’t wins or top fives. But top-10’s and things like that, and some runs that I’ve had, have meant more to me.”
“Yeah, I’ve had some, but not a ton. As I’ve said for a good while now, I let business people in my business handle that and have those conversations and figure out what options are out there, and I’m going to let them do that.”
If this is the end of the racing road for Patrick, she believes her contribution has been felt well beyond the track.
“I definitely think pulling back a little further than individual events is the inspiration that you’ve been told you bring to people, especially to kids, that’s a role that you can’t buy your way into,” Patrick said. “You have to earn that. You just can’t stumble onto that, especially having been around a long time now. That’s probably the most meaningful.”
As of now, Patrick has nothing lined up for next season. She’s allowing her representation to handle any negotiation. When asked about a potential IndyCar return, Patrick said it wasn’t in her immediate plans. Then added, “Never say never.”
“I’ve said for many years, because I’m getting so old and I know things can change,” Patrick said. “My life changes in ways that I wouldn’t expect it every couple of years. You just can’t cross off anything on the list completely.”
And at just 35, Patrick has plenty of time to figure it out.