Six or seven years ago, there was not a hotter commodity in NASCAR than Danica Patrick.
She was in the process of making the move from Indy Car to big-time stock car racing with a big-time sponsor in GoDaddy. Her move was going to attract legions of fans to the sport and open up all new demographics for NASCAR.
On Tuesday, she announced on her Facebook page that she was out at Stewart-Haas Racing after the 2017 season.
“It has been my honor to drive for Tony Stewart, Gene Haas and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past six seasons,” Patrick wrote. “Together we earned a Daytona 500 pole, seven top-10 finishes and we also had some exciting racing along the way.
“My time driving for them, however, has come to an end due to a new sponsorship arrangement in 2018,” she continued. “Sponsorship plays a vital role in our sport, and I have been very fortunate over the course of my career, but this year threw us for a curve.”
Arguing Patrick had success on the track with those numbers would be a stretch.
Since she joined Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) full time in 2013, the team has won 21 races and a Cup championship with Kevin Harvick in 2014. Tony Stewart also won a championship in 2011. So, you couldn’t reasonably argue she hasn’t had the equipment to excel.
A deeper dive into the numbers shows an average start of 25th and an average finish of 24th in 180 career races. In those 180 races, she only has 71 lead-lap finishes and 25 did-not-finishes (DNFs). Her highest finishing positions in the points standings were a pair of 24th-place efforts in 2015 and 2016.
Again, not promising and not exactly the results sponsors want to get behind.
The issue with Nature’s Bakery and the lawsuits between the company and SHR over the contract certainly didn’t help and put Patrick and her No. 10 team in a hole. Nature’s Bakery ended the contract with SHR and Patrick after one year citing a breach by Patrick by promoting a product from another company. Patrick denied the product was a competitor to anything Nature’s Bakery sold.
All that being said, you can’t call Patrick’s foray into NASCAR a failure.
Patrick has launched a clothing line, has a book coming out next year and has made a huge transition into promoting a healthy and fit lifestyle. It has her positioned for a second career at the age of 35 if she chooses. She has also done the job of attracting a younger female demographic to NASCAR, despite being a polarizing figure among many fans.
If this is the end of Patrick’s time in NASCAR, other competitors recognize her contributions.
“She will go down as the best female NASCAR driver of all time. Will likely take decades to see anyone even challenge her legacy,” Brad Keselowski posted on Twitter. “Have come to accept that mankind never knows or appreciates what it has until its gone. NASCAR fans will miss her badly in time.”
In a statement Wednesday, SHR co-owner Tony Stewart said, “I’ve always been a believer in Danica’s ability as a racecar driver and that continues to be the case. She’s one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. She has never backed down from a challenge. In fact, she’s sought out new challenges throughout her career, and that’s what brought her to NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing.
“Making the jump from INDYCAR to NASCAR is not easy, yet she had the courage to do so and put up better numbers than a lot of other drivers who have tried to make that same transition.”
But there is more to the SHR story.
Patrick’s announcement came on the heels of word that Smithfield Foods will be moving its involvement in NASCAR from Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) to SHR and a subsequent media tit-a-tat between the pork producer and The King. Aric Almirola, who has been with Petty since 2012, also announced that he would not be returning to RPM in 2018.
The speculation is he is moving to SHR with Smithfield.
If Almirola doesn’t make the jump with the sponsor, current SHR drivers Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are in need of sponsorship dollars. Both have run the logos of co-owner Gene Haas’s companies for more than a few races this year.
The immediate impact of the Patrick/Almirola siutation put more dominos in play for NASCAR’s silly season.
Those two join Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch in the Cup job hunt. Add to that Bubba Wallace, who, incidentally, subbed for an injured Almirola for several races this year and is rumored to be in line to replace Almirola at Petty with one caveat: sponsorship.
Which brings us right back to where we started with Patrick.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.