Saturday, July 02, 2011

Danica Earns Some Respect

Last night's Subway Jalapeno 250 winner was Joey Logano, while Danica Patrick earned tenth place, six places worse than her best Nationwide finish so far.

However, the order of the finish doesn't always tell the full story. Danica has been the center of some controversy in NASCAR as well and IndyCar because of the perceived ratio of driving talent versus marketing skills. She's good looking, and uses her looks as well as her racing fame to forward her career. She's only won one race in IndyCar - where she won on fuel mileage. Even in NASCAR that seems to warrant an asterisk beside the win in the record books. So, the argument that she's all marketing and not enough talent dogs her in both series. Plus, her record in her development series (Formula Ford, Formula Vauxhall, Barber Dodge Pro Series and Toyota Atlantic) is impressive with the highest finishes by a woman, she never actually won a race or championship.

Danica has so far only committed to a partial schedule in Nationwide in an apparent effort to learn and get her feet wet without jumping in whole hog, as it were. She has shown an ability to mix it up at times, and has made her share of rookie mistakes. All to be expected.

She is also with a top tier team - JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - but is really run on a day to day basis by his sister Kelley, with help from uncle and cousins Tony Eury Sr (Pops). and Jr. Lately, in IndyCar, Andretti Motorsports isn't necessarily the top tier team she needs to provide her with top notch equipment. So, the rumors abound that she may come over to NASCAR on a permanent basis. Her sponsor GoDaddy's owner Bob Parsons has unequivocally stated his company will support her whatever her decision - so she's got the sponsorship nailed down to bring to a Sprint Cup team.

Plus, there is a lot of debate and anecdotal evidence that the jump from open wheel to NASCAR just may be too great these days. AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Tim Richmond and many others ran cars in whatever they chose and succeeded in all of them. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart were open wheel champs. One thing to note is that the last three spent some time in the Busch/Nationwide series percolating before jumping to Cup.

But today's open wheel champs are struggling. Most notably is Juan Pablo Montoya. He is a Formula One champion, fer cryin' out loud. Sam Hornish, Jr. gave up driving for the Captain (Roger Penske) in IndyCar and moved to NASCAR Sprint Cup. His lack of success finds him in the Nationwide series. Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier couldn't cut it. Dario Franchitti (Mr. Ashley Judd) - an oval IndyCar champ seemingly ready made for NASCAR failed as well. He's done well since going back to the open wheelers.

So, there is a lot of pressure on Ms. Patrick. Can she cut it? Can she win?

One very huge hurdle is learning "the draft" at a "restrictor plate" race such as Daytona or Talledega. Danica's last drafting challenge found her wanting as she didn't seem to want to take turns pushing. Daytona has a brand new paved surface that has changed the racing from huge clumps of cars to single sets of two, one a pusher and one driving the train. They have to switch off because the pusher will eventually overheat following so close in the draft. The strategies for winning the plate races have changed considerably (If you don't understand "restrictor plate" - Wikipedia has a very good article explaining it far better than I could). She had a notable tendency to take advantage of a pusher, but tried to race them when they wanted to switch off, dropping both of them far back in the pack.

So, with all that, she must have done pretty well last night for me to write up an article about her today, right?

Yep, she did.

Tony Stewart teamed up with her for a while, and she really appeared to learn a lot. He pushed Danica to the lead - the first time a woman has led a NASCAR race at Daytona. She was having problems with the idea that dragging her brakes was a necessity to keep the cars together - when she'd get bumped and sped up, she'd leave her pusher behind and they'd slow down and lose the leaders. She picked up on that technique in a hurry. Danica actually pushed well, too. She and Eric Almirola (a teammate with JR Motorsports) hooked up and towards the end it really appeared the race was hers to win, if she only timed it properly. Her decisions when she was being pushed were improving greatly as well - she was threading her way through some pretty narrow spots and making it work.

But, she got excited and jumped to the lead several laps too early, leaving her competitors way too much time to run her and the 88 down and pass. At the last lap, she and the 88 were taking the outside groove and making a run for the lead when Mike Wallace got into Danica. After she brushed the wall, she caromed off Mike and a clot of cars hit the wall together, sliding across the finish line, Danica in tenth.

Rather a spectacular finish, frankly. This is no guarantee that she will win in the future. This was also a restrictor plate race - not a road course nor a short or intermediate oval, either - all of which require a completely different set of skills to master and win. "Running in the draft" in NASCAR is a completely different animal than it is for IndyCar, and Danica Patrick has demonstrated to me that she has picked up the necessary skills to be successful in that particular endeavor.

It would also seem logical to assume that the other skills needed for success are within her grasp with some more experience. If she does "come over," I really hope for her sake that she chooses to run at least a full season in Nationwide rather than jump right in to Cup level competition. That was a grievous error that her less than successful predecessors made, and are suffering the consequences now. Showing flashes of talent and success in the Nationwide series is not a guarantee of success in Cup. Cementing her abilities before the huge jump in the competition level can only help.

And for the record? I was one of the "all hat and no cattle" people before. I thought she was severely overrated and overhyped. Frankly, I still think that, but I also now believe that there is a very good possibility that Danica Patrick can back it up. Good luck and go for it, Danica!


drjim said...

I think she'll do well after she gets over her "rookie jitters" in NASCAR.
She's smart, she learns well and fast, and she has talent.
Hell, for *anybody* to get out there and drive in _either_ of these two series' shows they have talent.

Earl said...

You sound like a convert. For sure she realizes that good looks and marketing only get her so much, the race is remembered by those exciting endings and wins...

wv- firai italian for she's Hot

CGHill said...

It's always seemed to me that if she were all appearance, she wouldn't be around for long.

Frank W. James said...

Having been one who has watched Princess Patrick for all six of her years in Indy cars I feel the following can be said about Ms. Patrick:

1. In Indy cars she is strong on the big speedways.

2. She never rushes the start but likes to build momentum toward the end of the race which is usually the sign of a smart driver.

3. She is far better at marketing than she is at winning races.

4. Although she was trained in road courses and turning right she is more of an 'oval' specialist. She has never done well in any street or road course race in the past 6 years.

5. I'm not sure who said it, but the axiom is you don't know how GREAT a race driver really is until AFTER they have suffered a really bad injury and Patrick has yet to log any 'sheet' time. She has been lucky in that regard.

6. Even with power steering and all the other conveniences I question if she has the physical stamina (with her 110 pound frame) to hustle a taxi-cab for 500 miles successfully.

So in total I feel after watching her for 6 years there is still a lot of the "All Hat and No Cattle" about her. If she leaves Indy Cars I will not be one who will mourn her absence, but considering that her major sponsor, Go Daddy, was just sold we have to wait and see if they will fund her ventures in the future...

All The Best,
Frank W. James