Danica Patrick – give the girl a break

In the past couple of weeks the UK’s national press allowed itself a ripple of excitement over the news that the Williams F1 team has named Susie Wolff as effectively its fourth driver, and she will run in practice sessions at the British and German Grand Prix meetings.

“F1’s first female driver in 22 years” screamed the headlines. Never mind the fact that being fourth on the pecking order means that Susie’s chances of actually progressing from a couple of tests to a spot on the F1 grid are pretty slim – she’s a woman, and she’s in an F1 car, so that’s news right?

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Danica attracts the crowds wherever she goes… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Someone who is very used to this mass media attention purely due to her gender is Danica Patrick. Now many UK race fans probably won’t have heard of Danica, but in the US you don’t have to be a fan of any sport to know all about her, because she is everywhere.

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Strong performances at the wheel of 200mph-plus IndyCar single seaters.

Patrick competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, America’s biggest race series. Before transferring to the big stock cars in 2012, she ran in the IndyCar Series – just about the fastest motorsport around, single seaters running at speeds up to 230mph on high-banked ovals, a series that includes the iconic Indianapolis 500. She came pretty close to winning the Indy 500 in 2009, eventually finishing third, and a year earlier had taken victory at Motegi in Japan to become the only female winner in the series.

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The big IndyCar win, at Motegi in Japan in 2008.

So Patrick was big news before she headed for NASCAR, but when she arrived there… In terms of profile, IndyCar is very much in the shadow of NASCAR, and when Patrick arrived, the sport was planted firmly on the front pages of every newspaper – she boosted the crowds at the tracks, many of which routinely attract attendances of more than 100,000 for what is basically a 36-race national series, and TV ratings climbed when viewers knew Patrick was on. It really was Danica mania, firmly based on the fact that this was a woman, racing the men, and yes she attracted many more female viewers to the sport.

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Danica is of course much in demand by the photographers… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Two things about Patrick – it’s fair to say that she knows how to market her actually not that unique status in the sport – there are other female NASCAR drivers, some running as high as in the second-division Nationwide Series, but it is Danica you will find starring in the swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated…

Secondly, just starting her third season, she is yet to really set the sport alight on the track. She didn’t charge to glory in her first season, or even her second, and that has simply stoked the views of the nay-sayers, and a growing backlash amongst some fans.

Part of my role involves me following the in-race Tweets of various members of the US media who cover the championship. There are 43 cars in the race but it’s when Patrick gets lapped by the leader that loads of media Tweet the fact. If Patrick has a crash, you scroll through the various Tweets yelling “DANICA IN THE WALL!”  – the sort of all-embracing coverage otherwise only reserved for title contenders.

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Danica’s early NASCAR career has been blighted by accidents, by no means always her fault… Photo courtesy NASCAR

The NASCAR season starts with the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. Last year Patrick went out and snatched pole position for the race. Oh how excited were the conspiracy theorists! This was of course a NASCAR put-up job… Nope, she is at her best on the superspeedways such as Daytona and on this day she got it right more than the rest did.

We see such views in the Charman household – number one son, himself a rookie motorsport journo, never fails to offer me the view that “she’s never won anything and she’s only there because she’s a woman.”

Well the facts speak differently. Don’t get me wrong, Patrick is not the best racing driver in the world, and she’s likely not champion material. But neither is she any worse than a lot of the drivers around her.

Patrick is into her second full-season in the top-level Sprint Cup, with no wins yet. Her highest place was a fourth in the Nationwide Series, in 2011, when she was combining her IndyCar racing with some toe-in-the-water NASCAR outings.

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Another wrong place to be, this time at Daytona. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But this is NASCAR, where stats simply don’t tell the full story. Martin Truex Jnr, for example, came to Sprint Cup in 2006, as a two-time Nationwide champion. He won a race in his second season, not his first, in 2007. He then had to wait until last summer to win a second – a 218-race winless streak. And he is considered one of the hotter Sprint Cup pilots.

Aric Almirola, running for Richard Petty Motorsport, has been in the Sprint Cup full-time a year longer than Patrick. He hasn’t won yet. David Ragan, a firm fixture in the Cup, won his first race in his NASCAR career at Daytona in 2011 – it was his 163rd start. And he’s only won one more since. Yet the microscope is not on these or the many others for which statistics can be made to tell any tale you want. And these are generally drivers that have been racing stock cars since they could walk, not the single seaters in which Patrick got her education.

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Team boss Tony Stewart can clearly see Patrick’s potential. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But these drivers will secure the odd top-ten finish on a regular basis, say the detractors – Danica hasn’t… Not yet, maybe. But look at her first full-time year in the Cup. Her Stewart-Haas team, the 2011 champions, for much of the season struggled, not helped by team-leader Tony Stewart taking himself out of the running by breaking his leg mid season in a Sprint Car race.

Thankfully, the drivers who race with Patrick are generally more switched on to her abilities than are some of the fans and certain sections of the media, not least Tony Stewart. He’s not known for hiding his opinions, and if he thought Patrick did not deserve to be in a seat with his team, he’d come out and say it. But she’s still there, I remind everyone starting only her second full season in NASCAR’s top formula.

So far, some might say, it doesn’t look good. Three races in, Patrick lies 33rd in points, with not a top-ten finish to her name. But neither have her team-mates Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart, both former champions. Fact is Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling, only new recruit Kevin Harvick seeming to be able to make the car work right now. Patrick did have two strong performances in the opening two races, however, only to get caught up in accidents.

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In 2014 Danica Patrick needs to be adding good race finishes to performances such as the pole award she earned at Daytona in 2013. Photo courtesy NASCAR

At Las Vegas last weekend, she out-qualified Busch and Stewart, found in the race that the car was terrible, worked on it to make it better, and while she finished 21st, it was five places ahead of Busch, 12 up on Stewart. With Harvick retiring, Danica was the best finisher for the entire Stewart-Haas team.

There’s no denying it, Patrick needs a better 2014 than 2013. This NASCAR follower thinks she will have a better one. But whatever happens throughout the rest of the 2014 season, it will be because Danica Patrick is a racing driver – not just a female racing driver…

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The Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest, but least relevant, race?

To what many would consider a surprisingly large number of UK motor sport fans, this weekend is special. It marks the true start of the motor sport year, because it is the true start of the NASCAR season.

Excuse me? I hear you say, convinced I’m a week behind? After all NASCAR’s biggest race, by far, is the first of the year, the Daytona 500, and that was held last week. We know that even here in Blighty, because it even made our daily papers – probably because of who won it, but more of that momentarily.

Yes the Daytona 500 is huge, the one race win every driver wants on their CV, and more than a week of excess that kicks off the season in unmatchable style and always produces a stack of stories. But in terms of the NASCAR season, the Daytona 500 doesn’t mean that much.

The carnage started early - Jimmie Johnson was one of many front-runners who wrecked their car on the last lap of the qualifying Duels race on Thursday... (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

The Daytona carnage started early – Jimmie Johnson was one of many front-runners who wrecked their car on the last lap of their qualifying Duels race on Thursday… (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

For starters it’s a restrictor-plate race, meaning that to keep speeds manageable, all the cars have air-strangling plates placed in their inlet manifolds, slicing the engine’s horsepower from more than 750 to nearer 400bhp. So every car – from position one to position 43 on the grid – is even more evenly matched than usual and they run in huge packs; “first to 25th place are covered by one second,” said the commentator at one point last Sunday. Without trying too hard a car can go from the front to the back and to the front of the pack again in the space of a lap, so this race is not really much of a guide to who’s hot and who’s not at the start of a new season.

Clearly demonstrating this is the list of winners. Last year, the 500 was won by Jimmie Johnson, and he went on to win the Sprint Cup title. But before that the last time the 500 winner also became champion was Johnson again, back in 2006. The time before that was Jeff Gordon, way back in 1997, yup, 18 years ago. The 2012 winner was a rookie called Trevor Bayne, who only competed in less than half of the season that year…

...as was Clint Bowyer, who went for a wild ride but landed on his wheels and crossed the line - through the pits... (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

…as was Clint Bowyer, who went for a wild ride but landed on his wheels and crossed the line – through the pits… (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

So the real season begins this weekend, on the one-mile oval of Phoenix, with the cars racing for the first time with the hopefully action-improving body modifications that NASCAR came up with after miles of late-season testing – modifications that the cars will wear all season, except on the restrictor-plate tracks. Come Sunday night we will have a better idea of who might be the ones to watch in 2014.

Still, we’d never do without the 500, and it lived up to its billing – we had loads to talk about right through the biggest of Daytona’s Speedweeks.

We started with conspiracy theories. Last year, Danica Patrick stormed to pole position, and some fans simply couldn’t believe the Sprint Cup’s only woman driver could achieve such a feat without some ‘help’. It was a preposterous suggestion, as basically the woman can drive, and anyway at Daytona the gap between the sport’s fastest and slowest is so compressed that qualifying is a pointer to – not a lot really.

No matter, the conspiracy theorists were in action again for this year’s 500. Dominating the news cycle was the return of the fabled number 3, not seen on a Sprint Cup track since 2001. It was back then that Dale Earnhardt – the ‘Intimidator’, revered by many as NASCAR’s greatest, and thought by probably just as many to own the number three, was killed. It was at Daytona, on the last turn of the 500 and after that there were calls for the number to be retired.

Rookie Austin Dillon made the early headlines, mainly because of his car number. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Rookie Austin Dillon made the early headlines, mainly because of the fabled number on his car. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Earnhardt’s team boss Richard Childress didn’t agree with that view. Instead he kept the three back, waiting for the right time for a return. And this year, Childress decided, was the right time, the number placed on a car to be piloted by his grandson, Austin Dillon, starting his Sprint Cup rookie season. And of course Dillon duly went out and took pole position for the 500…

There was no conspiracy, of course – in the race Dillon produced a less than stellar performance, his major contribution being to initiate two of the big accidents. He became just one of the many stories, others including Denny Hamlin winning everything except when it really mattered, top drivers doing their best to wreck their best cars and teams that really shouldn’t blowing engines.

All paled into insignificance, however, alongside the biggest headline, written by the driver many feel should be in the three, the man that provided the NASCAR hierarchy with a result few foresaw, but which was probably, alongside Danica winning, the result they would have asked for.

Dale Earnhardt Jnr is the son of the Intimidator, and has assumed the mantle amongst the fans – he’s been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 years running. Only when Junior takes the lead in a race are the cheers from the stands audible over the cars, and late on a Sunday night, in a Daytona 500 that had started at lunchtime, been delayed six hours by rain and was finishing in prime time darkness, the cheers were longer, and louder than ever, and no-one talking conspiracy theories.

Dale Jnr - his second 500 win, a decade after the first. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Dale Jnr – his second 500 win, a decade after the first. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

And after all that, in the days following the 500 what was the most discussed aspect of Junior’s victory? That it finally persuaded him to join Twitter – by midweek he had 506,000 followers…

So that was just a couple of highlights of the Daytona 500 – the race that seldom fails to live up to its billing. But now, this weekend, the real trawl gets underway. In 35 races, and eight and a half months’ time, we’ll have a new Sprint Cup champion. And should Junior, like team-mate Johnson, manage to turn Daytona 500 success into his first title, we will probably hear the cheers over here…