SPARTA — With Danica Patrick on the verge of becoming the first woman to drive in a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, Kyle Petty said what many of Danica's critics seem to think.
Petty, the son of NASCAR legend "The King" Richard Petty who enjoyed a 30-year (1979-2008) career as a driver in NASCAR's highest series, went on SPEED TV and said Patrick "is not a race car driver. There's a difference. The King (Richard) always had that stupid saying, but it's true, 'Lots of drivers can drive fast, but very few drivers can race.'
"Danica has been the perfect example of somebody who can qualify better than what she runs. She can go fast, but she can't race. I think she's come a long way, but she's still not a race car driver. And I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver."
In between the final practice and qualifying for Saturday night's Quaker State 400, Patrick came to the Kentucky Speedway media center and acknowledged she had read Petty's harsh assessment.
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"There are plenty of people who say really bad things about me," Patrick said. "I hear about them. Or I read about them. Or I read them on Twitter. People (say) they want me to die. At the end of the day, all you can do is trust you are doing a good job and think that's all that matters — and that the people around you believe in you."
Patrick, now 31, became an American phenomenon in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. The Roscoe, Ill., product became the first woman to lead the race and the first female to finish in the top five (fourth).
She ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated and her fame "crossed over" from sports into popular culture.
From that time, people have been voicing the same complaint: that her performance on the racetrack has not matched her hype and celebrity. "That's where I have a problem," Petty said on SPEED, "where fans have bought into the hype of the marketing, to think she's a race car driver."
Fine, Patrick — with her 12 GoDaddy.com Super Bowl ads, her posing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and being listed at No. 91 on the Forbes compilation of 2013's most powerful celebrities — is more famous than she is accomplished.
So what? The whole NASCAR enterprise is driven as much by commerce as competition. Drivers get rides frequently based on the money they bring to a race team. Why people get so agitated over Patrick climbing based on her fame has always fascinated me.
Besides, her critics are wrong in contending Patrick does not have legitimate racing achievements. She backed up her fourth-place run in the Indy 500 in 2005 with a third place in 2009. She did win a race in the IndyCar Series in 2008 in Montegi, Japan.
This season as a Sprint Cup rookie, she claimed the pole position for the Daytona 500 and ran in the top five for a good bit of that race before getting shuffled back to eighth on the last lap.
She is the only woman to achieve any of these things. They are not small achievements.
This year, the consensus is Patrick is struggling in her initial season in the Cup Series, and she is. Other than her eighth at Daytona, she has only two runs (12th at Martinsville and 13th at Michigan) in the top 20. She sits a pedestrian 27th in points.
Yet recent history shows it has been difficult for open-wheel drivers far more accomplished than Patrick to transition into the Sprint Cup Series. So far this year, Patrick's average finish is 25.8. That's better than what Dario Franchitti (34.3 in 2008), Sam Hornish Jr. (29.6 in 2008) and A.J. Allmendinger (31.6 in 2007) compiled in their first years trying to move into stock cars.
In an illuminating discourse Friday on how hard it is to switch between the disciplines of driving an open-wheel car and a stock car, Jimmie Johnson said, "I have a lot of friends who race other series that want to come NASCAR racing. I tell them all that you need a five-year plan (in stock cars) before you have high expectations (for success)."
Patrick does not have to be the next Jimmie Johnson to "succeed" in NASCAR. At some point, she does have to run well enough to keep the public interested in her as a driver — and keep GoDaddy's sponsorship dollars flowing.
"The most important thing to me is that I can keep my team happy — and we're moving in the right direction," Patrick said. "I think GoDaddy is happy. When (I) walk out of the garage or walk around the track and meet a little girl who wants to grow up to be like (me), you're doing something right."
After her news conference, as Patrick walked back to her hauler in the Kentucky Speedway infield, several little girls — and their parents — stopped the driver. Danica signed autographs for the girls.