The Daytona sun was bright. The promise of another NASCAR season, set to start in a couple of days at the Daytona 500, provided hope.
So Danica Patrick was upbeat in February as she sat outside her motorhome inside the Daytona International Speedway and talked about her future in NASCAR.
Upbeat, but realistic, especially entering a fifth year in stock car racing with limited results. In her first four seasons she finished 27th, 28th, 24th and 24th, far from playoff contention and, despite the understandable learning curve, far below her expectations.
She was asked when she might retire from NASCAR.
“I don’t know,” Patrick told Yahoo Sports in February. “I want to race and have fun and running 20th and in the back is not fun. … If it doesn’t start to go better, then it’s not worth it.”
It hasn’t started to go better. It hasn’t been fun – Patrick is currently ranked 28th in the standings. She hasn’t finished better than 22nd in any race in more than a month.
And Tuesday she announced she needs a new team, her relationship with Stewart-Haas racing ending after this season. She remains on the hunt for a big sponsor, what with deals with GoDaddy and Nature’s Bakery ending, or being greatly reduced, in recent years.
Mostly though, she’s 35 and needs a reason to keep pushing, a reason to believe this is, indeed, worth it and fun and all of that.
“I’m not there to just be a car in the field,” Patrick said. “I don’t have to race because I need money. I don’t have to do any of that.”
This season is probably the end for Danica Patrick in NASCAR.
Losing her spot on the Stewart-Haas team is a crippling blow. It is one of maybe four or five teams in the sport that can consistently put out competitive cars. If she couldn’t contend with a top team, then trying to make it in a smaller shop seems futile and even less enticing to sponsors.
She is still popular with her fans and as the lone female in NASCAR’s top series (let alone a telegenic and internationally famous female) she still demands tremendous attention. NASCAR’s popularity and relevance has slipped considerably in recent years though, so what’s the return on investment on nearly any driver?
Only Jimmie Johnson (Lowe’s) and Paul Menard (Menards) have the same primary sponsor for every race this year. Jimmie’s a legend fighting for a record eighth championship; Menard is sponsored by his billionaire father. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. scrambles these days. That’s the reality of the business.
For Danica, how her foray into NASCAR, or her driving career at all, will be remembered likely will depend on individual perspective. Many fans found the outsized attention offered to her to be unfair or even off-putting considering her moderate record. That she’s never won a NASCAR race (she won one in IndyCar) will define her. She was, for some, easy to root against, someone they loved to hate.
Others will recall that while she was never a championship contender, she accomplished plenty. She was an undeniable groundbreaking personality. Her presence at the track drew fans, television viewers and money. She gave the old stock car circuit a measure of cool since coming over from open-wheel racing in 2012.
And she could drive. Maybe not like Johnson or other contenders, but she is one of the few drivers to ever lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and Indy 500. She won a pole in Daytona and finished third in Indy. She won an IndyCar race in 2008. She has never found victory lane in NASCAR, although she has managed seven top-10 finishes.
Danica was never a truly elite driver, but she held her own most weeks. If you’re the 24th-best player in the NBA, you’re an All-Star. In NASCAR you’re an also-ran. It doesn’t change the math, however.
Still, she wanted more. She never said otherwise.
“It’s about being in the top 15 every single weekend,” Patrick said in February. “Running in the lead lap, going for top 10s when things are going well and when that becomes more normal then top 10s become the goal and then you can keep escalating your goals.”
She never reached those goals.
Patrick is a whip-smart businesswoman who saw this coming. In recent years she opened a winery, an athletic wear company and has constructed an entire boutique yet affordable brand around fitness and healthy living. There’s a workout routine, website and cookbook, which is based on how food can be used as a medicine for the body.
“I have been lucky enough to be able to make other businesses out of my hobbies,” Patrick said.
Her heavily followed social media accounts are mostly viral videos and photos of her performing elaborate yoga routines and other feats of strength in her signature attire. She recently hyped a vintage of her Somnium Wines … while wearing a swimsuit.
She holds considerable sway over a vast market of consumers, women in particular who want to look, eat and live like she does and aren’t too concerned exactly where she finished in the NASCAR standings. She was out there, trading paint in a man’s world and, even her critics would agree, never backing down.
That’s what counts.
Forbes estimated she made $13.7 million in 2016 alone, yet her post-track career is likely to be even more lucrative.
The end was coming for Danica, the writing on the wall that this was going to be her final season unless she found a way to make the leap into the playoffs and beyond.
She could still save it, still find a ride and find a sponsor and find a glimmer of hope that might draw her back to Daytona in February, to another crack at it.
If not though, while critics will continue to demand more and fans will appreciate what she gave them, Patrick will be onto the next thing. She’s never been one to sit still.