Danica Patrick Daytona
NASCAR jump-starts its 2012 season this weekend with the 54th annual Daytona 500. “The Great American Race” has become the biggest, richest and most prestigious event in the world of motorsports. This year, it’s even a little bit more special for local race fans. It’ll be the first time we get to see former Roscoe resident Danica Patrick race for the coveted title of Daytona 500 champion. She’ll be making her Sprint Cup debut in NASCAR’s biggest race.
Last season, Patrick ran 12 races in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, with GoDaddy.com as her sponsor. She managed two Top 10 finishes in those 12 starts. Her best finish was fourth place at Las Vegas early in the season, and then in July she came home 10th at Daytona. The fourth-place finish is the highest ever by a female driver in a NASCAR national event.
Patrick will run twice at Daytona this weekend. Patrick will hit the track Saturday afternoon, Feb. 25, for the 120-lap Drive4COPD 300, and then at noon, Sunday, Feb. 26, she’ll take the green flag for the 200-lap Daytona 500.
The practice runs she is getting as one of the entrants in the Daytona 500 Sprint Cup race Sunday should be a huge help in the Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide event the day before.
“There’s very little Nationwide testing here,” Patrick said during Speedweek’s Media Day last Thursday, Feb. 16. “I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful thing that I’m doing the Daytona 500,’ because, in my lack of experience, I didn’t notice a difference between the two cars (the No. 7 car owned by JR Motorsports that she will race in the Nationwide season opener and the Stewart-Haas No. 10 Chevrolet she will be in for the Daytona 500).
“I didn’t drive them back to back,” she said, “but when I came and tested (the Daytona 500 car) a few weeks ago, it feels very similar to a Nationwide car. I think the Cup practice is going to be great for the Nationwide race, and I think the Nationwide race is going to help a lot for the next day for the Daytona 500.”
Patrick has downplayed her chances of winning “The Great American Race” in her first try. She has cited her inexperience and the talented field she’ll be up against as two of the biggest obstacles she’ll be facing.
She does have one huge supporter on her side, last year’s Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
“Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year?” Stewart questioned. “Anything can happen here. It’s anybody’s ballgame. Talent-wise, there’s no doubt in my mind she’s got the ability to do it.”
Patrick is scheduled to compete in all 33 Nationwide races in 2012 and also plans to run in nine other Sprint Cup events. This season will mark the first time in seven years she will not be competing in the IndyCar Series.
For Patrick, though, the former was much more important than the latter in becoming the first female pole-sitter since Shawna Robinson at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March, 10 1994.
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"I really don't think about it from a girl perspective," she said after turning a 182.741-mph lap for Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300. "I've been taught from a young age to want to be the best driver. My dad's here, so he can attest to the fact that when we'd go out go-karting, and I'd be a half-second quicker than everyone, and he was still ticked off and not happy and we kept working.
"It was about being the best driver and not the best girl."
Patrick, who will make her Sprint Cup debut in Sunday's Daytona 500, is making a full-time move to NASCAR this season. She will race full time in the lower-tier Nationwide Series and making 10 starts on the premier circuit.
In making the transition from the Izod IndyCar Series (where she raced from 2005-11 and became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and win a major-league oval race), Patrick has talked often about wanting to build credibility with her new competitors.
Though qualifying at Daytona International Speedway is largely considered to be more about car than driver (because restrictor plates choke down the horsepower of the engines, it's mostly an exercise in steering without lifting off the accelerator), Friday's pole seemed as if it helped Patrick feel more a part of the stock-car club.
Waiting for roughly 45 minutes as 15 more cars made qualifying laps after hers, Patrick chatted with Sprint Cup stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. (the owner of her No. 7 Chevrolet in Nationwide) and Tony Stewart (whose Stewart-Haas Racing team has her under contract in Cup). When defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who qualified second, joined hr conversation with Earnhardt, the trio began exchanging wide smiles and animated gestures that mimicked turning the wheel.
Though she ran mostly in the top 10 until a last-lap crash in a Thursday qualifying race, Patrick struggled sometimes to find partners willing to work with her in the draft on the 2.5-mile oval that features large packs of cars racing inches apart.
She was hopeful that starting first Saturday would get more drivers enthused about seeking her out for bump-drafting, which is when two cars make contact to increase their speeds.
"Anytime that you show that you have a fast car, it's encouraging for people to want to help you," Patrick said. "You always want to be with the fastest cars possible. We'll see how it works on in the Nationwide race because it seems like there's a lot of bump-drafting. So I think that starts to earn you some respect and credibility because people will want to work with you then. Then my job is to show them that I'm good to work with."
Elliott Sadler, who qualified third, said Patrick already had proved that last July at Daytona when she led 13 laps and placed 10th (tying for her second-best finish behind a fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last March that set a record for a woman in NASCAR's national series).
"I thought that was very impressive," Sadler said. "That was her breakthrough race. Today just shows she's also got a fast race car, so she's going to have good track position. But as far as drafting or feeling comfortable, last July she showed me a ton. The last 24 months, she's by far the most improved driver we have on the circuit, counting all three series (of Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Cup)."
She hasn't stopped trying to soak up information, though, picking Earnhardt's brain for a while Friday about side-drafting.
"I asked Dale if he had some words of wisdom for the rookie," Patrick said. "I said, 'I want all your tips.' I've got a lot to learn."
Confabs aside, Patrick wasn't the only one benefiting from Friday's session.
Bayne, who turned 21 Sunday, predicted the pole position would have "a good shot for No. 1 on (ESPN's) 'SportsCenter'." Sadler noted NASCAR "can't pick two bigger names to be on the front row of a Nationwide race" than Patrick and Bayne, who became a media darling a year ago as the youngest Daytona 500 winner and joked that "Danica is on her way, but there's a mosh pit" when a postqualifying news conference began without her.
"We look for these kind of moments," Bayne said. "NASCAR keeps talking about starpower, and these are the kinds of moments that are going to help our whole sport. Not just Danica or our team but our whole sport. The more eyeballs watching, it's all better for us. . . . We want that diversity. They've been saying our fan base is aging, and they're looking for that new thing. This is it. Young guys like Austin, (defending Nationwide champion) Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) and myself, and you have Danica. The Nationwide Series is going to be a great place to be and where it's at."
This weekend, the spotlight is focused mostly on Patrick, who was interviewed on the "NBC Nightly News" a few hours after the pole.
She said she's ready to handle it despite some jitters.
"I get much more nervous because I know my car's fast," Patrick said. "When you sit on the pole (and) don't win the race, then I just wasted the fastest car. So, yes, it adds a lot of pressure and I now feel nervous.
"Thanks a lot, pole position, you've made me nervous already, but it's a good problem to have, and I don't mind being nervous. It tends to bring out some good things in me."
"We'd never had it because they were like, 'Don't drink it for 10 years,' but I figured we'd waited long enough," Patrick says. "Paul said, 'It's Valentine's Day. We're going into a big year, and it's going to be great. We're headed to the Daytona 500. Honey, go pull something good.' "It might have seemed presumptuous to be toasting before she had turned an official lap in NASCAR's premier series, given that Patrick has said her success would be determined by winning. But in some ways, much of the hard work already had been done well in advance of Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
The third woman to start NASCAR's biggest race will be the first to make her Sprint Cup debut with so much experience weathering the stress of intense scrutiny. The first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, as a rookie in 2005, she has handled years of questions about her gender-defying rise through the motor sports world, her transcendent impact despite only one Indy-Car race victory and, of course, her lightning-rod sex appeal.
With a tight but trusted cadre of a half-dozen advisers and assistants helping curate her highly coveted brand, Patrick ranks among the most recognized and respected names in professional sports. She arrives at racing's top level as a mainstream global attraction in auto racing, whose reliance on corporate sponsorship creates a sway to play environment where having an alluring personality can be as important as excelling on track.
"No driver has been so marketed, prepared and coiffed for a season of racing in the history of the sport," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a racing consultant who has spent nearly a half-century in the industry and was the longtime president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Just about the time you think she has left for racing's shadows she reappears like the Sphinx. Even her pairings with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, are storybook. Everything about her seems magnificently scripted."
Being under contract to the second-tier Nationwide Series team of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, and the Cup Series team of defending champion Tony Stewart will only heighten the visibility of a driver whose star power has led to Barbie doll endorsements, music videos and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appearances.
According to SourceEcreative, Patrick, 29, has appeared in a celebrity-record 10 Super Bowl ads. All were by her primary racing sponsor, Go Daddy, and the Internet domain registrar set its Sunday sales record after running two of her spots during the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
But this Sunday's TV audience likely will be the largest that's seen her race, and her 43 scheduled events this season (10 in the Cup Series, 33 in the Nationwide) will draw double or triple the audiences that watched her compete in Izod IndyCar Series races other than the still-popular Indianapolis 500.
Ed Kiernan, president of the Engine Shop sports and marketing agency, says if Patrick "can contend in Daytona or possibly win, it's, bar none, the story of the year for NASCAR." He says such success also might help re-energize sponsorships from consumer-oriented companies that left the sport or decreased their multimillion-dollar investments during the economic downturn.
"It's exactly what the sport needs right now," Kiernan says. "If she can perform on the track, it'll propel her into another stratosphere. You'll see her popping up in every end cap and aisle display at major retailers all around the country."
How she got here
Patrick's Cup debut comes after a complicated transaction that guaranteed her a spot in Sunday's race. The deal, which essentially gave her another team's points from last season and allowed her to enter based on that, was similar to other deals cut this year and in past seasons. But Patrick's arrangement drew outsized attention, and many fans howled that it was unfair.
It's nothing new for Patrick, who has compared the polarizing nature of her popularity to that of Tim Tebow. There were snits in IndyCar with drivers who complained that she dominated the spotlight despite results that paled compared with those of other stars, and a fiery (some might say petulant) side often emerges when she feels wronged, which has caused tangles with rivals and her own team.
There have been no such incidents in NASCAR, and the early reception has been welcoming. Prominent Cup driver Kyle Busch, who also owns a Nationwide Series team, says Patrick has talent and deserves the spot.
"People ask, 'Is she given too much attention for not being successful?' I'd admit, 'Yes she has been, but it's great for our sport,' " Busch says.
Earnhardt Jr. says the interest in Patrick stems from "a dynamic edge to her personality. She's assertive and determined. That's exciting, especially coming from a woman. It's very rare in this sport, so it's very intriguing to people. Everyone — some more than they want to admit — wants to see her do well and succeed, because they want to see what the results are, not necessarily for her but what does that do for the sport."
In the Q Score ratings, which measure the consumer appeal of athletes, celebrities and brands, Patrick has the highest ranking of all active drivers. In the Davie-Brown Index, which rates a celebrity's ability to influence consumer behavior, she has ranked third among drivers behind four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick, whose one IndyCar victory made her the first woman to win a major league oval race, will be a long shot to win in the Cup Series after Daytona. At Daytona, though, there has been a history of unlikely champions, including Trevor Bayne, who won last year in his second career Cup race. And in her first full season in the Nationwide Series, as a member of a premier team, she likely will become the junior circuit's highest-finishing woman ever. That would be a boon to her "Beautiful Revolution" brand created by IMG (a global sports, fashion, marketing and media giant that does work for dozens of high-profile athletes, including Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning).
"It's about being different and unique and doing something that's never been done before, but doing it as a girl and looking good while doing it," Patrick said. "And it being a really beautiful thing that it's happening."
"Team Danica" consists of two IMG agents (Alan Zucker and Mark Dyer) who handle her racing contracts and endorsement deals, two CPAs who manage her money, a personal assistant who coordinates her harried life in a color-coded grid and a bus driver who pilots the posh mobile home where she'll stay for at least 70 nights around the country this year. She doesn't make major decisions without consulting her husband of six years who built a physical therapy business in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a high-profile client roster of professional athletes. It's a much smaller payroll than many Cup drivers who have staffs in the double digits.
"We run a pretty tight ship," Patrick said. "We're pretty lean and mean for the amount of business and the scope of things that need to be done."
It's less family oriented than it was in the wake of her 2005 breakthrough at Indy. From 2006 to 2009, Patrick paid her mom, Bev, to handle the schedule, and her dad, T.J., to drive the bus. Brooke Patrick also traveled to races and lived with her sister and Hospenthal at their Scottsdale home until 2010.
Patrick's sister (recently engaged) has moved to Indy, as have her parents. After often living in a motor home with five people and three dogs, last year virtually was the first Danica and Hospenthal spent alone as a married couple home and on the road.
"We made it work really well for a while, but it's very difficult to have your parents working for you," she said. "I needed my parents and that relationship back, and I didn't want every phone call to be, 'What do they want now?' It just became a very cluttered environment without enough boundaries. So for my peace of mind and my relationship with my husband as well, we needed to give it some space. More than anything it was just time to grow as a business and be more professional."
While moving to NASCAR will be a major adjustment for Patrick, it won't change her life completely. Unlike most NASCAR drivers, she isn't buying a jet or moving to North Carolina, where her teams are based north of Charlotte. She and Hospenthal will commute from Arizona every weekend, sometimes flying first class but other times taking a chance on an expensive or lengthy flight that their US Airways status will earn them a free upgrade — or that it won't.
"I know it hits on my street cred if someone sees me in coach," Patrick says, "but I'm just practical like that with money. I just see no point in wasting it. … Paul is very smart and has had his own business a very long time, and I've learned from him how to take care of things. We're always trying to think about, 'If (racing) ended today, could we live this lifestyle and not have to work anymore?' "
Stewart, who also lives much of the time outside of Charlotte, knows the value of being able to get away from NASCAR's grind. He relies on three people — Stewart Haas Racing vice president Brett Frood, business manager Eddie Jarvis and communications chief Mike Arning — to set his course.
"All the attention she got with the IndyCar side, you have to find a way to balance it out with something that gets your mind off it," says Stewart, who spent five days at home during an offseason filled with sponsor appearances, commercials and TV cameos. "I would say she's already figured out what to do to cope with everything."
Frood, who oversees Stewart's business empire of 12 companies, recently had lunch with Patrick and reviewed her financial structure, which he endorsed.
"There are very much parallels between Tony and Danica and their stability," Frood said. "She's very well grounded, and it's because of the support system. She doesn't potentially have some of the worries or concerns that other professional athletes have because they don't have that network of people. The key is there are people she trusts. When she gets to the track, she can worry about racing. When she's not in the car, she doesn't have too many concerns."
Patrick's Twitter feed isn't racing-oriented, but the breezy stream of consciousness of an admitted pop-culture junkie. On a shelf in her motor home sits Star magazine ("Twins? Really?" Patrick giggled, picking up a recent issue with Jennifer Aniston on the cover), Allure, Women's Fitness and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition.
"When you become a popular person, that seems to be what people want to know anyway," Patrick says. "I talk or tweet about things based on what I would want to see or want to read about it. If I talk about it enough, it creates authenticity and people know it's real and I'm into it, and then it can become something that I do when I'm done racing."
Patrick has designs on a clothing line after racing (she has turned down two offers) and has launched a perfume line.
Her current and future endeavors are more pristine than the risqué ad campaigns of Go Daddy, which uses her as the strait-laced, clean-cut foil to scantily clad women.
"Even though Go Daddy tends to push the boundaries a little in their marketing, I never got the sense that she crossed the line or puts NASCAR or herself in a bad light," says Jimmy Bruns, a vice president of business development for GMR Marketing, which represents many NASCAR sponsors. "She's done a very good job of pushing her career in this direction. I'd give her an A on everything she's done."
Some of Patrick's brand is an extension of her plainspoken and self-deprecating side. She beamed last week when describing how she learned on a recent shop visit that many scenes in the NASCAR-themed movie Days of Thunder contained a kernel of truth. ("Ice cream on pit lane was real! Crashing the rental cars was real!"). After giving a nondescript answer about her relationship with Stewart during a group interview last week, she playfully mocked herself by mimicking a scene from Lost In Translation.
One of Patrick's IMG representatives, Dyer, a former NASCAR executive who works primarily in IMG's colleges division as a senior vice president, says Patrick often insists on cooking her own breakfast when she stays at his family's home on her frequent visits to Charlotte.
"One of the biggest things people would be surprised to know about her is she is very low maintenance," Dyer says. "She doesn't even let you carry her bag if you pick her up at the airport. She's very self-sufficient.
"She's basically a good old Midwestern girl from northern Illinois, and that's one of the reasons she connects so well in NASCAR."
'We have a lot of fun'
Patrick isn't above public flashes of anger, though. She stomped down pit road a few times to confront drivers after skirmishes in IndyCar, where contact is frowned upon.
In two seasons of part-time racing in Nationwide, Patrick has expressed love for the fender- banging that's prevalent in stock car racing ("What's surprised me is how much I truly enjoy driving these cars"), but in Cup, she will be racing against a higher caliber of veterans who might have less patience for mistakes and have been known to rough up rookies in a form of high-speed hazing.
She will have the wisdom and security of a sibling-type relationship with Stewart, who likes trading pranks and quips with his newest driver. The three-time champion has a similarly combustible personality on track and has become a mentor to Patrick. "As a boss vs. a friend, there's no line there with Tony," she said. "We have a lot of fun."
In her Gatorade Duel debut Thursday, the first of two 60-lap races that set the starting grid for the Daytona 500, she was hit by another car and crashed on the final lap after running in the top 10. Her car smacked the inside wall (actually an energy-absorbing barrier) hard, relegating her to the back of the pack for Sunday's green flag in a backup Chevrolet.
Goals are tempered in Cup, but she wants to win in Nationwide. Stewart and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn't win in their first Nationwide seasons, and several IndyCar drivers making the transition to stock cars have struggled mightily.
"I don't think she's in a must-win situation at this point," Bruns said. "The fans and the industry still understand she's learning because it's such a hard thing to do."
ESPN analyst Ray Evernham said, "Sometimes the expectations of what Danica needs to accomplish are not fair to her. But I think the girl can drive a race car, and she really is pretty tough when it comes to handling a lot of the media and fan pressure. I think she's as prepared as any other rookie."
So does Patrick, who thinks she could become the first Cup driver to win her debut because of Daytona's finicky style of racing. "There is no bad driver that wins the Daytona 500, but things have to fall your way," she said. "There is a little more luck, and you can't account for that."
That's on the track. Off the track? Patrick thinks she has it covered.
"There's nerves," she said of her debut. "There are a lot of things that are unknown. But overall I'm feeling as comfortable as I could imagine. I'm ready."