DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In varying ways, Danica Patrick's competitors issued a unanimous sentiment of support for her during Thursday's NASCAR Media Day interviews.
And while they all reiterated their respect for NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty and his right to voice his opinion, they didn't all agree with his public assessment that the only way Patrick would win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was "if everybody else stayed home."
Further, Petty told the Canadian Motorsports Expo audience this past weekend, "if she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she'd showed up at a racetrack."
Patrick's team owner Tony Stewart immediately dismissed the notion he needed to respond to the situation. "I'm not even going to waste my time talking about that topic," he said. "Danica's probably the best to talk about it."
Asked about the topic during her early morning interview session Thursday, Patrick reacted to the comments, smiling politely and saying that fundamentally she appreciates Petty's right to share an opinion.
"You know, people have said things in the past and they will say things in the future. I still say the same thing and that's that everybody is entitled to their own opinion," Patrick said. "People are going to judge what he said and I'm just not going to."
Her former team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who shares a Goody's Headache Powder sponsorship with Petty and has known the family his whole life, seemed torn between his longtime respect for Petty and the NASCAR icon's opinion about Patrick that Earnhardt didn't agree with.
"I thought he was a little rough on Danica," said Earnhardt, whose JR Motorsports team fielded a car for Patrick in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for parts of three seasons (2010-12).
"You can't call out (Petty) because he's 'The King' and he's such a patriarch and icon in the sport and has tons of wisdom and insight and done a lot for this sport. But at the same time, she deals with more criticism than anyone who has ever raced in the sport. It seems like she goes by a different set of rules because of her gender, and that's unfortunate.
"It seems like she's always having to answer to something like that and it's a pain in her butt and frankly, it's got to get old."
Understandably, Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola asked people to remember context and perspective. The team cautioned this week that Petty insisted his words weren't meant in a sexist manner and Almirola is convinced the whole situation is being overblown.
"In text and a newspaper or website there's no emotion in that," explained Almirola, who is also friends with Patrick. "You can't see his facial expression. You can't hear what was talked about (before and after) that one-liner, so there is a lot that goes into it. People love a story. We all know that. People love drama, so he said one sentence that got taken out of context and blown up all over the media and now it's gone viral.
"I'm sure if you asked him if he could take it back he probably would, but at the end of the day, he said it and what he probably meant is exactly what I'm telling you. For those expectations of people to think, 'Hey, is Danica Patrick gonna win a race this year?' Maybe, but in all likelihood, probably not. I'll go on record saying that, too.
"I think it's just tough. I'm telling you, look at guys like Denny Hamlin. He goes all year until Homestead without winning a race. Dale Jr. goes all year and doesn't win a race. It's not easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it and I think she does a damn good job. I think the time will come that she will go to Victory Lane and that's about all I have to say about that."
One of Patrick's new teammates at SHR, Kevin Harvick, smiled and shared his observations of Patrick and the whole topic, stressing the one thing he's learned about Patrick is "she does not get rattled."
"She's so used to people saying this and it doesn't bother her," Harvick said. "And that's not a front. It really doesn't phase her and you really don't have to stick up for anything that someone says or does.
"She is not phased by anything I've seen. She just doesn't care and moves on and lets it roll off. I think she's dealt with so much for so long that she's just immune to it."
Furthermore, in his short time working alongside Patrick, Harvick said he has been impressed with both her work ethic and ability in transitioning from IndyCar to stock cars. He said he thinks she can win in NASCAR, but cautioned she's still early in the development stages.
"I think this year is going to be really good for her and her learning curve just for the fact that we went and tested together at Nashville," Harvick said. "Just a couple of conversations can help. She can drive the car. Most all of us have done this for ? I've been in a stock car since I was 16, so that's 22 years. You aren't going to make that experience up. She's realistic about what she needs to do and accomplish. Just getting those little conversations over before you get to the track can overcome a lot of hurdles."
Patrick's strongest supporter is her boyfriend, 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who joked that the media was talking about Danica and Richard (himself) during last year's Media Day, too.
He said they haven't spent much time discussing Petty's comments and conceded he didn't appreciate the sentiment. But, he was quick to remind everyone, Patrick has dealt with this before in her career.
"It's tough," Stenhouse acknowledged. "But she's been going through it for a long time so she can handle it better than others I would say. I would not be happy if they said that about me like that. I think she handles it very well.
"I think she's proved she can drive these race cars. She's still got a lot to learn, I've got a lot to learn. It takes a lot to figure these cars out. If you look at my season, I've run a lot more races than she has in stock cars and last season wasn't the greatest season for me either."
Then Stenhouse grinned and restated that Patrick will be just fine.
"We talked about it once, right when the comments came out, but as far as letting it worry her, no she hasn't," Stenhouse said. "She's really good at just letting it go, she has a lot of experience with it -- a lot of people that talk good about her and a lot of people that talk bad about her, you've just got to take the good and stick with it and be positive about it."
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