Danica Patrick approaching NASCAR's abyss
Despite having never won a stock car race, Danica Patrick remains one of the most popular drivers in the Sprint Cup series. Her 2013 pole start at the Daytona 500 garnered headlines around the country. Yet with sponsorship in limbo and performance stagnant, she is quickly approaching NASCAR's abyss and in danger of seeing her NASCAR dreams go up in smoke. She still has time to prove she belongs but the clock is ticking. Unless something changes soon, Danica Patrick's relevance as a race car driver will be gone for good.
Danica's entry into NASCAR came with plenty of fanfare. She ran a limited schedule at the Xfinity series level, splitting time between IndyCar and NASCAR in 2010 and 2011. Despite the split attention, Patrick showed promise and improvement. That 2011 season saw Danica score a top five and three top ten races in 12 races. Her average finish improved from 28th to 17th in a single season. The success encouraged her to roll the dice and make the switch over to NASCAR full time in 2012. Her Daytona pole raised expectations and gave fans a reason to hope that the best was yet to come.
Her first two Sprint Cup seasons imparted a hard dose of reality. Despite running some of the best equipment in NASCAR she has failed to run up front or contend for race wins. She finished the last two seasons 27th and 28th in points, by far the worst of any driver in comparable equipment. In fact, she landed within a few slots of boss Tony Stewart both years despite driving 18 fewer races. Stewart, a former open wheel driver himself, was expected to ease Patrick's transition to NASCAR. His absence from the track to end 2013 and his distraction in 2014 could not have helped. But in a bottom line business, the results simply have not been there.
Unlike stick and ball sports, NASCAR teams depend on more than just performing well to survive. Sponsorship dollars can often keep a driver employed even if the results aren't there. Sponsors like to see their car up front but it's not the only reason they're invested. Every company's motivation for entering NASCAR is different and each has their own expectations of a driver. Those expectations include how a driver carries themselves in the media, how much exposure they gain their sponsors during the week, and the image they cultivate. Millions of dollars are spent to sponsor the car and millions more are spent to activate that sponsorship through media buys and ad campaigns.
Over the eight years, Patrick has been a prime example of this. She has starred in numerous Super Bowl commercials for GoDaddy and has been unafraid to sell her sex appeal as part of the bargain. This perfectly matched the company's advertising strategy. For years, GoDaddy's ads featured sexy women in limited clothing. How much those ads had to do with domain registration is unclear but they were effective. GoDaddy is now a worldwide leader in web domain registration and a large part of why that's happened has been Danica Patrick serving as the face of the company.
However, the GoDaddy of today is vastly different than the one that signed on in 2006 for a limited sponsorship deal with Patrick. Her biggest fan was company founder Bob Parsons. He believed in racing sponsorships in general and believed particularly in Patrick's value to their brand. When he was replaced by Blake Irving, Danica lost perhaps her biggest fan. Irving eliminated the company's IndyCar sponsorship. He's made few public comments on Patrick other than to say she remained a part of the company's plans. Yet he also completely redid the company's marketing strategy, focusing on event sponsorships and small businesses. Bikini-clad women and racecars were in short supply. They've made little use of Patrick in ads over the past year and have shown no indication that they're willing to continue to cut an estimated $15-20 million check annually in 2016 and beyond.
Assuming that GoDaddy is gone, who could replace those dollars and keep Patrick's NASCAR dreams alive? The market is a large one. Patrick remains an advertisers dream from an image perspective. She has enough “edge” associated with her brand to be cool but she's also the perfect pitchwoman in front of the camera. Hundreds of mainstream products could be easily benefit from an association with Patrick. Some time ago, we looked at the possibility of Danica herself getting a boost by ending a sponsorship that no longer fit who she was. Proctor and Gamble remains a company that would be a natural fit but they're not alone. So it's entirely possible that the reports of Patrick's Sprint Cup demise are greatly exaggerated.
But what if they're not? Danica Patrick without sponsorship can only be described as a liability. She will turn 33 years old this month and has shown little progress to justify the fantastic investment made by GoDaddy and the Stewart Haas Racing. Her lone top five finish in either the Cup or Xfinity series came four years ago (a fourth place run at Las Vegas in the 2011 Xfinity race). All involved expected a transition period but by now she should be moving forward, not backward. There is only so long that the, “She's still learning,” or “She's making progress,” excuses will be accepted. At some point there has to be a return on the investment.
Will her Daytona pole run forever be the highlight of Danica's NASCAR career?
If SHR pulls the plug at the end of 2015, Patrick will not find a Cup ride in comparable equipment. The only teams in the same area code are Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing. JGR already has a four car lineup and Penske was unwilling to add a team to support a personal favorite in Sam Hornish Jr. So any move would be at least one step down in terms of the car she's driving. She's also ill-equipped to be the leading driver on a second or third tier team; evidence her consecutive 10th place season finishes at Andretti Autosport in 2010 and 2011. Although she could find another Cup ride, it would be with a team incapable of lifting her performance and would further damage her already fractured reputation.
So Patrick's NASCAR career depends on her ability to make real, sustainable progress in 2015 with Stewart Haas Racing. She needs to prove that she's more than just a marketing machine who only got this far thanks to a few pictures in Maxim magazine. She needs to lead laps because at this point it isn't the car that's holding her back. Nor is inexperience preventing her from being successful. With 145 stock car races under her belt, Danica Patrick is no rookie. If she cannot perform now she never will. Instead of being remembered as a pioneer of women's racing, she will be little more than a footnote. The descent into obscurity can be a quick one in auto racing and Danica Patrick is staring straight into that abyss.