Twice this year, the most fervent wishes of NASCAR marketers have come true: Danica Patrick has gone to victory lane.
Alas, she’s been there to congratulate her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., after his victories at Talladega and Daytona.
For Patrick — the most accomplished female driver in the history of major American motor sports — 2017 has been a hard slog.
Before the season-opening Daytona 500, her primary sponsor, Nature’s Bakery, reneged on its deal to finance her Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion (the sides eventually settled dueling lawsuits). For Patrick, long seen as a dynamic force in sports marketing, that was an unanticipated blow.
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Once the racing began, things haven’t gotten better.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway on Saturday for the seventh running of the Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts. Patrick, 35, comes to Sparta a lowly 29th in the points standings. Through 17 races, she has one top 10 (a 10th at Dover) versus seven DNFs.
That combination of uncertain sponsorship and lackluster on-track performance has raised the question of whether she will have a Cup ride in 2018 — even though she has one year remaining after this season on her contract to drive for Stewart-Haas.
Last month, citing sources, SportsBusinessDaily.com reported that Patrick’s future at Stewart-Haas Racing was “uncertain” after 2017. Via her social media accounts, Patrick appears to be “transitioning her brand” into healthy eating and physical fitness.
Putting it all together, Saturday could conceivably be the final time Patrick races at Kentucky Speedway.
She has a long history in Sparta. The 2017 Quaker State 400 will be the 14th major race she has run at Kentucky — seven in the IndyCar Series, two in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, and this year will be her fifth Cup race.
Her IndyCar debut at Kentucky Speedway, in August 2005, was one of the most anticipated events in the track’s history. It came only weeks after the “Danica-mania” phenomenon was ignited when Patrick finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500 after leading 19 laps.
Her Indy breakthrough landed the Roscoe, Ill., native on the cover of Sports Illustrated and made her a coast-to-coast celebrity.
A huge crowd of 62,950 fans turned out in Sparta to see Patrick race that first time. She started from the pole, too, but finished 16th after her car developed gearbox problems.
Earning that number one starting position (via practice lap times after qualifying was rained out) has pretty much been Patrick’s highlight at Kentucky Speedway.
She never finished better than eighth at Kentucky in IndyCars. After she moved to NASCAR, she didn’t crack the top 10 in two runs (12th and 14th) in what is now the Xfinity Series. In her four previous Cup races, her best finish is 17th (last year).
Among auto racing fans, Patrick has become polarizing. The prime reason, I think, is that many people think her level of celebrity far outlaps her on-track achievements.
Even if one thinks that, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that Patrick has had notable accomplishments in American motor sports.
In Indianapolis 500 history, no female driver has ever qualified higher (fourth in 2005) or finished higher (third in 2009) than Patrick.
Her IndyCar victory in 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan is the only win for a female driver in a closed-course race sponsored by a major American motorsports series.
As a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 2013, Patrick won the pole position for the Daytona 500, something no other woman driver has done.
However, to stay viable in the Cup Series long term, her challenge was to run competitively enough that sponsors would continue to see the worth of harnessing her celebrity by financing her race team.
With one top-10 finish in her last 81 Cup races, that’s a bar Patrick seems not to have cleared.
Still, if Saturday night turns out to be the final race at Kentucky Speedway for the most prominent female race car driver in American motor sports history, it will be a moment worth noting.