Back Seat Driver: Defending Danica

Photo Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

If you’d told me three years ago I would be writing the words you’re about to read I’d have asked you how much time you’d spent in the garage without adequate ventilation. 

I’m glad Danica Patrick is going to be racing in the Daytona 500.

To put this statement in context, you have to understand that I've not particularly been a fan of Patrick's since she got off my Saturday-morning TV screen and into an Indy Car. I disliked her as a driver because of what I considered to be her whiny, entitled, diva attitude.  I questioned her talent, too, but not because of her gender. Rather because of the hype vs. results ratio and because of her aforementioned tendency to whine during races. I viewed her foray into stock cars with skepticism, though I understood how NASCAR would be more appealing financially than the lower-paying open-wheel series. Still, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I was glad she chose good teams for which to drive. 

And I'm glad Danica Patrick has a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. Not that I'm particularly a fan of the top-35 rule, but since it's there, I'm glad she's a beneficiary of it. 

I don’t care that Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing obtained the points necessary to lock her into the "Big Show" by essentially subcontracting her to Tommy Baldwin Racing.  I don’t care that the partnership between SHR and TBR, in all likelihood, exists solely to elicit NASCAR’s approval of the transfer of owner points earned by Dave Blaney last season. I don’t even care that someone at Stewart-Haas did some gerrymandering in that deal that would do the Texas state legislature proud.

What I do care about are the accusations of sexism and favoritism being lobbed at Patrick for doing nothing more than using every advantage given to her.  People are saying Danica Patrick doesn’t deserve to race in the upper tiers of stock car racing. Not in Sprint Cup, and most especially not in that most sacred of NASCAR institutions, the Daytona 500. They’re saying she’s having everything handed to her, that she hasn’t earned the right to race with the big boys. That she’s selling sex and because she brings a big-bucks sponsor with her, one that exploits her sexuality, that she’s getting advantages other drivers would never get.

Photo credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
I call shenanigans on all of the above. She didn't make the rules. She’s simply making the best of them. Patrick is not the first driver to be guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500 based on points that someone else earned. I’m looking at you, Sam Hornish Jr. She’s not the first driver to capitalize on her good looks and marketability to secure media attention, which generally helps in securing sponsorship dollars. Carl Edwards, take a bow. A shirtless one, please. Kasey Kahne, take off your shades and come on down. She's not even the first driver to step straight into a top-caliber ride. Patrick's NNS owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. immediately comes to mind. And she's certainly not the first driver to be employed with more than a little assistance from a relationship with a deep-pocketed sponsor. See Menard, Paul or even Waltrip, Michael. (You’re hearing the “NAPA Know-how” song in your head right now, aren’t you?)

As for earning the right to race in Sprint Cup, I refer you to such stellar performers as Steven “Crash” Wallace, whose father should give thanks regularly for the HANS device and the SAFER barrier. Did his four top fives in 157 Nationwide starts earn him his 2011 Daytona 500 entry? Michael “McDriver” McDowell raced 3 whole races in Nationwide before making the jump to Cup. What in his performance in the lower-tier series justified his 2010 Daytona 500 slot?  McDowell is perceived as having enormous potential despite scoring only one top five and 10 ten top tens in his 77 Nationwide races. Does his NNS career-average finish of 22.8 really outweigh Patrick's average of 22.9? 

Or is it just that he's a guy? 

Despite the fact that I write for an all-female website, I’m no feminist. It’s not in my nature to rail against gender inequality. But it is my contention that if Danica Patrick were male, I wouldn't be writing this piece. We might hear some grumbling about NASCAR’s integrity and letting racers race, but the outcry would be nothing like the vitriol that’s being spewed over the SHR/TBR deal. Yet because Patrick just happens to be a beautiful young woman who is smart enough not only to capitalize on all her assets, but to take the help being given to her, she’s the one being criticized. NASCAR approved the deal, so if anyone has a problem with it, they should, in my opinion, take it up with the sanctioning body, not with a driver who is just playing the game. As much as I detest clichés, I’m going to use one here: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. 

While I may not be completely won over by the Go Daddy girl, I don't begrudge her the opportunity to focus on race performance rather than being concerned with multitude of ways that her qualifying attempts could go wrong. The margin for error is minuscule. A blown tire, a blown engine or a blown pit stop can mean the difference between making the show or watching it on TV. For SHR, the stakes are too high to take a chance. With the top-35 rule, those eight open spots in the Great American Race draw drivers and teams from all over the country hoping to race their way into the Daytona 500 and become the next Trevor Bayne. Who got into the race on someone else's points, I might add. 

Photo credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs 
Some have said that the SHR/TBR deal shows that Stewart doesn't have confidence that Patrick could qualify for the big race. In an interview at the Daytona test, he said, "I've got the utmost confidence that even in the worst-case scenario, we've got the right driver that can get this car in the race, no problem."  As a team owner, Stewart simply made the most of his assets within the parameters of the business. Tommy Baldwin Racing gains sponsorship dollars and visibility, Stewart-Haas Racing gains security. I may not be a fan of the system, but I recognize its utility and applaud Stewart for manipulating it to the benefit of his organization. 

Those people who say she hasn't paid her dues do so out of ignorance, and are cut from the same cloth as those who booed Jeff Gordon in the early days of his NASCAR career. Patrick started in go-karts at age 10, and at 16 she moved to England to pursue her dreams of open-wheel racing. While there, among other accomplishments, she finished second in the Formula Ford Festival, which tied Danny Sullivan's 1972 record for best finish by an American driver. 

She's driven for Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti, both IndyCar icons. Patrick was the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 and has the best finish by a woman in a race that does not suffer fools kindly. In fact, despite being an IRL champion, Tony Stewart never matched Patrick's fourth-place finish; the best he ever placed was fifth. She holds the IndyCar record for the most consecutive races running at the finish with 50. FIFTY. You can't win races if you don't finish them. 

Patrick is also, as you probably know, the only woman to win an IndyCar race. Detractors may argue that her Motegi, Japan victory was a fuel-mileage win, but in today's Sprint Cup that's not an argument to bring to the table. How many men have run season after season and never won a race? I don't know about IndyCar, but I know there are a few in NASCAR. 

In NASCAR NNS, Patrick led a lap at Daytona and has the highest place finish of any woman, fourth at Las Vegas. She may not be racking up wins in a stock car, that doesn't mean she doesn't have driving experience. It doesn't mean she hasn't paid dues. So what if she was in the right place at the right time and seen by the right people? She's been smart enough to make the most of those opportunities. 

Seriously, does anyone really think that Tony Stewart, who followed through with firing his crew chief even after he won his third championship, would waste more than 15 minutes with a driver - male or female - he didn't think had bankable potential as a racer, not just as a spokesperson? I don't think so. If Tony Stewart didn't think Danica Patrick could win races, I believe he would have told her to stick to IndyCar, to stay away from NASCAR. Instead, he hired her and put her in the capable command of his friend and former crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. Zippy seems confident in his driver's ability at Daytona, saying "She responded very well, very good feedback." He mentioned she "did a really good job in the draft, which was great."

While ultimately I would prefer that racing be simple and straightforward, the fastest 43 cars and drivers competing,  that's not how things work right now. They haven't worked that way since the past champion's provisional was instituted. Perhaps NASCAR will re-examine the rules after SHR's creativity, but as of right now the move was both legal and smart. 

And I'm glad Danica Patrick will start the Daytona 500. It won't even hurt my feelings if she wins. 
Back Seat Driver: Defending Danica Back Seat Driver: Defending Danica Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Sunday, February 05, 2012 Rating: 5