2014's Biggest stories, #4: Danica Patrick's last stand?
Perhaps the biggest question heading into 2013 revolved around the potential of Danica Patrick. A Sprint Cup rookie entering her first season, few other drivers on the circuit drew the same sort of visceral reaction from fans. With seven years of Indy Car racing to go along with nearly two full seasons at the Nationwide level, Patrick was no stranger to the spotlight. While publicly downplaying expectations, NASCAR officials and Stewart-Haas Racing execs alike had high hopes for the former Maxim cover model. Yet her struggles- in particular her late season swoon- now have Patrick on the verge of NASCAR extinction.
It didn't start out that way. Danica (and her romance with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse) was THE story of Speedweeks 2013. She qualified in the pole position for the Daytona 500 and spent nearly the entire race near the front before finishing a very respectable eight place. The only dissonant note was a rough finish to her Nationwide race, where a blown engine put Patrick out early after leading several laps. While no one reasonably expected her to be in the title Chase come Homestead, there was hope that Danica could be competitive and perhaps steal a race or two.
The Daytona 500 proved to be her high water mark. Considering the Hendrick-built equipment she was running, the following 35 races were a study in futility. No wins, top five or top ten finishes (her best was a 12th place finish at the spring Martinsville race). No other pole starts; in fact, outside of an 11th place start at Daytona II, her best starting position was a 21st place start at Atlanta. She finished on the lead lap only 11 more times after Daytona, yet only five of those 24 finishes were due to a crash. Week after week, Patrick qualified poorly, fell down a lap early and ran well off the pace all race long. Perhaps the lowest point came at the second Kansas race where Danica could not complete a single lap before ending her day in the wall.
A rookie struggling during their maiden season at the Sprint Cup level isn't news. In fact, it's expected- particularly when the rookie in question is fairly new to stock cars and is performing under an intense media spotlight. What was so depressing at Patrick's results is that she regressed over the course of the year. The team expected her to struggle but also expected that they would improve when visiting tracks for a second and third time (she competed in ten races at the Cup level during 2012).
The core start/finish numbers for the #10 over the last two seasons bear out the regression. While Patrick improved her putrid qualifying efforts (from an average of 33.7 on first visit to a track to 29.9 on the second and 27.1 on the third), virtually all of her other numbers are down. Her average midrace slot was 28th over her first trip, up to 24.5 for the second trip down all the way to 31.1 for the third trip. Her average finish went from 26.8 on round one to 25.9 on round down but falling to 27.1 on the third trip. Her average highs and lows also dipped, falling to 18.6/38.9 on the third visit.
Loop data provides an even sharper view. Her green flag pass differential was a respectable -2.6 on the first visit but fell to -9.9 by visit number three. Quality passes, which reached 30.9 per race on her second visit, fell back to 24.7 by the third time around. She achieved the fastest lap 0.7 times per race during her first visit, jumped to 1.9 on the second and dropped again (to 0.6) on the third. She ran fewer laps in the top 15 and her overall driver rating, which was only 50.8 on the first go-round, dropped to 48.1 by the third.
The hard numbers provide substance to the argument that Danica Patrick simply isn't getting better. Seat time, the one thing supposedly all drivers need to get better, has had the opposite effect for her. Even when Stenhouse Jr. was putting cars into the wall in the Nationwide series he was running up front before doing so. Patrick was among the first drivers to fall a lap down on a weekly basis, in part due to her struggles with qualifying and in part due to her inability to find speed in the car. Crew members outwardly praise her ability to provide feedback on the car. If that's true, then why has crew chief Tony Gibson failed to make the kinds of changes, particularly on second and third visits to a track, to give Danica the kind of car she needs to be successful?
It's far more likely that for all of her talent behind the wheel, she still does not have a basic understanding of how changes affect the car. In years past, this kind of understanding could be gained through an abundance of off-season testing and time spent running at lower levels. NASCAR rules prohibit the former and Patrick's age/sponsors prevented her gaining the kind of useful Nationwide experience to launch her Cup career. She's trying to emulate the move made by team owner Tony Stewart but ignoring the fact that the cars (on both sides of the NASCAR-Indy divide) are light years ahead of where they were only a decade ago.
Patrick tries (unsuccessfully) to wreck Landon Cassill
All is not yet lost for Danica. Her struggles at the end of 2013 came with mentor Stewart on the shelf thanks to an injury. Tony will be back at Daytona and both his presence and his feedback will be invaluable to Patrick. She will also benefit from having new teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. The two will give her a pair of additional sounding boards for setups, lines, and other ways to find speed on the track. They will also take some (although not all) of the media glare off the #10 car. Having a trio of long-term, championship caliber drivers instead of a single lame duck driver can only help.
But make no mistake, the pressure is on. Bob Parsons, former CEO of GoDaddy, was perhaps the world's biggest Danica Patrick fan and spent millions of dollars marrying his company's ad strategy to the attractive driver. Parsons stepped down in 2011 but not before agreeing to bankroll the driver's NASCAR venture through the 2014 season. New CEO Blake Irving took his position at the beginning of last year and has overhauled the company's ad strategy. Patrick and a bevy of sexy models are out while more “corporate” ads aimed at small businesses are in. He's had many kind words for Patrick so far but the clock is ticking on Danica's sponsorship and there's been no word of an extension so far. Irving has already pulled the company's IndyCar sponsorship of James Hinchcliffe despite multiple race wins last season.
Losing GoDaddy would not be the end of Patrick's NASCAR career. She still has an incredibly high Q rating and provides plenty of bang for a sponsor's buck. Even finishing 30th place, Danica garners more eyeballs and sponsor exposure than most top ten drivers. And should she ever figure it out behind the wheel, the sponsor value will shoot through the roof.
But her time in one of NASCAR's elite rides will be dangerously short if she is unable to improve on her performance in 2013. Stewart-Haas Racing already has three other drivers that have proven their ability to win at NASCAR's highest level. SHR spends tens of millions of dollars per year to run some of the sport's best equipment off of the Hendrick assembly line. Patrick's place there will never be secured on sponsor dollars alone. After all, team co-owner Gene Haas is essentially funding one of the teams out of his own pocket in a desire to win races.
If Danica's performance lags far behind that of the other three drivers, she could find herself shopping for a ride come 2015. She will never have an owner as understanding at Stewart, nor will she find equipment better than that she's already in. The training wheels are fully off this year; either Patrick begins to prove she belongs or she will be quickly left behind. She has shown flashes of ability in the past two years. The question heading into this season is whether this is the beginning of her real career or Danica Patrick's last stand.