October 15, 2011
Few tears likely for Danica
By DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency
You would think Danica Patrick had the measles, the way fellow IZOD IndyCar drivers appeared to be avoiding her this weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Patrick is making her final appearance in the IndyCar loop on Sunday before she embarks on a full-time NASCAR career next season with the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and a part-time schedule in the Sprint Cup series with Tony Stewart’s Stewart Haas Racing team.
But there is not likely to be many hugs or teary goodbyes for her in the IndyCar paddock.
Almost to a man, or woman, there has always been the feeling in IndyCar that Patrick cast a giant shadow over other drivers who resented that they could not command the same kind of media attention.
The media attention she generated, of course, resulted in millions of sponsorship dollars coming her way — sponsorship dollars that other drivers could only dream of.
Many of those drivers, while wishing her the best in her new NASCAR career, indeed expressed some relief that she would no longer be hogging the spotlight in North America’s premier open-wheel series.
“Her leaving now, I think ... in a way it’s good for the sport because now people will see a lot of other great drivers to get behind,’’ this year’s Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon said.
That she still commands the lion’s share of the spotlight was in sharp focus on Saturday morning in the parking lot of the Mandalay Bay Casino where IndyCar had set up a fan zone to promote its Sunday championship race at LVMS.
There on a temporary stage above the proceedings were the two championship leaders — three time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Will Power, the challenger to his crown this season — who were taking questions from around the globe via an Internet hook-up as well as from a couple of dozen fans on the grounds.
Below them the rest of the 34 drivers who qualified for Sunday’s championship round were seated signing autographs.
Each driver had his or her own line of fans. Most of those lines were 40 to 50 fans long.
Only one stretched beyond the confines of the parking lot, however, and that was the one for Patrick.
It has been this way since Patrick crashed the IndyCar party at the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and became the highest-ranking female ever with her fourth-place qualifying effort and then trumped that achievement by becoming the first women to lead a lap at the most famous oval race in the world.
The notion that she got to where she is today more through marketing than driving ability is pervasive in IndyCar circles. One look at her record, however, shows that she has been in or near the top 10 in points in each of her seven IndyCar seasons.
But of course, the Patrick haters point gleefully to her bikini layouts in men’s magazines like the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition as proof she is all style and no substance.
The critics conveniently forget that in 2005 when Patrick came on board IndyCar was little more than an afterthought in the world of big time sports and entertainment.
She was able to lift the entire series on her slender shoulders back to prime time. The giant ESPN sports machine spotlighted her at every opportunity and that exposure spilled over to the rest of the IndyCar series.
Yet Patrick bears no ill will to her IndyCar family as she prepares to take on the good old boys of stock car racing.
“There will be definitely things and people that I miss about IndyCar,” she said at Kansas Speedway a week ago. “I’m sure that, especially on frustrating weekends, I’ll think that, in IndyCar, maybe it’s this much easier.”
But make no mistake about it she is champing at the bit to start her stock car career.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Patrick said. “I’m excited. I’m ready for change ... and I’m not afraid of change.”
As for the final race of her IndyCar career, Patrick thinks she could go out a winner.
She posted the fastest time in practice in the No. 7 Andretti Autosport Dallara but didn’t match it in qualifying, but still got a top-10 position — ninth — for Sunday’s race.
“Overall, I think our team is pretty good,” she said. “This will be a pack race on Sunday. So it is nice to qualify toward the front of the field.”
In her last start at Las Vegas in Nationwide Series in the spring, Patrick finished fourth — her best ever NASCAR result.
Patrick’s IndyCar stats:
Patrick’s IndyCar stats: