INDIANAPOLIS – The Danica debate has raged for years: Is she about the sport or about herself? What does Patrick want more: to win or to be "that GoDaddy girl?" Every decision Patrick makes gets shoved through this prism. When she hops from IRL to stock cars, is it for love of the game or for love of the fame?
The debate has hardly made a dent in her image to this point. In fact, Patrick's top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500 have helped her brand, and her sex appeal has brought a ton of eyeballs to her sport. Just look at the 33-percent ratings jump last February when Danica made her NASCAR debut.
But after a brutal start to the year and a tempestuous rant following a bad qualifying run for Sunday's Indianapolis 500, the Danica debate might be entering a perilous new place – her own team.
"She's overworked right now," said Michael Andretti, Patrick's IndyCar boss. "She's pulled in every direction. In some ways, it's not helpful. No human can do what she's been doing."
Andretti didn't hesitate to name a culprit: IMG – the global sports management giant Tiger Woods trusts to cultivate his brand.
"Since she joined IMG, her schedule has tripled," Andretti said. "Up until then, she was fine.”
Patrick joined IMG in February of '09, right before the beginning of her last contract year with Andretti. And around that time, the rumors of her dalliance with NASCAR heated up. When asked about her future then, Patrick said, "That's what I leave up to my agents."
Last December, the announcement many expected finally came – Patrick would give stock car racing a try, driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Her debut came at Daytona International Speedway in February; she competed in a total of three races, then in March turned her focus back to IndyCar when that season began. She's scheduled to be back in the Nationwide Series in June.
Coincidence or not, her results on the open-wheel track this season haven't measured up to last year's when she finished a career-best fifth in the standings. Things haven't gotten better for her at Indianapolis, a track that has always been good for her.
Having never finished worse than 10th there, she'll start Sunday's race a career-worst 23rd. That's because of a lackluster qualifying run last Saturday that left her trembling with fear. Patrick got out of the car and in an interview that bellowed over the loud speakers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway proceeded to blame the car's setup, saying it was "skating across the track" and insisting "it's not my fault."
Boos rained down on the usually-beloved driver and she put her head down and thought, "Oh shoot." Patrick softened her comments later, but also admitted this has not been a good season.
"I perform best when I'm happy," Patrick said Thursday. "I can't say I've had a lot of fun this year."
She went on to say her confidence has taken a beating, and she's wondered, "Am I good enough as a driver?" She admitted to feeling "tired and exhausted," but more because of the shortened schedule this year (Indy trimmed its schedule to two weeks instead of a month) than anything else.
"I've really had to work on keeping my confidence up," she said. "I knew this was going to be the hardest year. I thought [coming to] Indy would give me the confidence for NASCAR stuff. It's been the opposite."
So did that trigger her outburst last weekend? A lot of drivers would have erupted after a frightening and disappointing run leading up to the biggest race of the year. But did outside stress contribute?
Danica says no. In fact, when asked about her overall schedule, she brightened up.
"My life outside is busy, but not necessarily hard," she said. "I am really, really happy there. I have everybody I need to perform."
Her boss isn't so convinced.
"To do this takes 24/7 commitment," Andretti said Thursday. "There's no other way to say it. IMG wants to make money off her, and the only way is if she's out there 24/7 for them."
Patrick's lead sponsor sure isn't complaining. "How is it too much?" asked GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons. "Danica's pretty young. Why not let her do it? If you look at where everyone else on the team qualified, maybe she's on target. Maybe there were issues with the car."
In fact, none of Patrick's Andretti Autosport teammates have had a very good May. The highest qualifier is Marco Andretti, who will start 16th, while team leader Tony Kanaan barely made the 33-car field.
Both Patrick and Michael Andretti were diplomatic about the rant. Andretti said there has been "no harm done," while Patrick, after admitting she "didn't say the right thing," declared, "I have faith in the team."
But maybe the problem is deeper than a few choice words and a few bad races. Maybe the problem is a rift.
This is exactly the kind of obstacle to this point Patrick has brilliantly avoided. She and her image-makers have deftly mastered the slow reveal – giving only a glimpse of her true persona and her true intentions. She's been both the smiling girl next door and the racy racer. She's been the ardent student and the marketing demon. She's been cool and hot. And most importantly, she's been close enough to the winner's circle to remain credible.
"You can't put her in a box," said Bill Sutton, a sports business professor at the University of Central Florida. "That's big. That's a huge attraction. She hasn't been overexposed. She's looked it over, picked her spots."
The fact that the boos came this late in her career – she's 28, now in her sixth full IndyCar season – is a tribute to her ability to be all things to all people.
But now she's trying to be even more things to even more people. She's trying to be an IndyCar driver, a NASCAR driver all while building a global brand. Freelancing within or between sports rarely works for the best athletes – remember Michael Jordan's foray into baseball – and it can undermine even the most talented (Michelle Wie).
Patrick is certainly not the first driver to blame her car – right, Kevin Harvick? – but public finger-pointing can indicate an athlete is having trouble hauling his or her own load. Passing the buck last weekend could have been a meaningless lapse. It could have been a justified criticism of a team that needed a kick in the rear. Or it could be a sign of a fissure in Patrick's buffet-style strategy. The incident reaffirmed Patrick's resolve to fight for the engineering tweaks she wants. But how will that go over when her team is singularly focused on winning on the IRL circuit while she is not?
Winning the Indy 500 would certainly stop any brewing war in Danicastan. A fresh bottle of milk Sunday afternoon would shore up her confidence, Andretti's car trouble and IMG's bountiful bottom line. But the chances of that kind of history are slim, considering Patrick's back-of-the-pack starting slot and her acknowledgement that her ride "isn't perfect."
Another top-10 finish would add to Patrick's resumé – especially coming from 23rd – but any finish lower than first would pour more kerosene on the Danica debate. The longer she goes without winning a major race, the more her decisions will come under fire.
"We'll see," said Andretti. "It may all come to a point where we have to have a talk. It's a touchy situation. If I was in her shoes, I wouldn't like to hear it either."
She may hear it after this weekend.