As the 2012 NASCAR campaign approaches the late-season drama of the Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship, it is a natural time to reflect on the rookie performance of Danica Patrick. While the media darling has dabbled in stock car racing since 2010, this year serves as her initial effort devoted exclusively to driving with the boys of NASCAR. Danica's performance has seemingly failed to meet the lofty expectations of her celebrity status. Yet, she should not regret the decision to leave IndyCar and continues to carry potential for success in NASCAR.
Steady Performance, Bad Luck
Every driver loves to blame disappointing results on bad fortune, but sometimes it's accurate. Patrick's 2012 record in the Nationwide Series largely reflects consistent performance, as does her 11th place positioning in points. Though possessing only a single top 10 with an 8th place at Texas, Danica has finished in the top 20 in 11 of 21 races. For most rookies, such results are acceptable, even if unspectacular. The JR Motorsports driver has struggled to avoid trouble, but this ability often develops over time. While she has made a few legitimate mistakes, most miscues stemmed from tire and car issues or tussles with drivers like Sam Hornish and Ryan Truex. Such difficulties happen in stock car racing and it is fair to extend a learning curve to someone accustomed to the practices of IndyCar.
Future in Sprint Cup
While Patrick signed to drive for Dale Earnhardt. Jr.'s team in Nationwide, her team immediately planned a move into NASCAR's top level. The 30 year-old simultaneously joined Stewart-Haas Racing to run a limited Sprint Cup schedule in 2012 with hopes of full-time entrance in 2013. Patrick thus far has competed in only 3 Cup events and posted a top finish of 30th at Charlotte. She returns to the circuit later this month at Bristol and is expected to perform double-duty many times this fall. Some drivers can succeed with limited experience in feeder series, such as Ryan Newman, who only experienced a 28 Nationwide races before jumping to Sprint Cup in 2002. However, many believe Danica is unprepared for such a transition. Perhaps the end of the season can still change that judgment. Yet, Patrick would likely benefit from more seasoning before entering the fire of top level stock car racing.
Needs to Win
Though steady performances are admirable, there comes a time when a driver must pursue victory. A Nationwide win during the final events of 2012 would unquestionably alter the perspective of Patrick's season. Danica has already displayed the ability to lead races. As recently as Daytona in July, the GoDaddy driver led 13 laps before a multi-car incident prevented a strong result. Perhaps the greatest criticism of Patrick's ground-breaking career is the lack of checkered flags. Even supporters cannot deny this missing link has haunted the Illinois native. Though she led multiple Indy 500's, Danica only triumphed in 1 race during 7 years in IndyCar. Possessing a top ride in Nationwide, now is an ideal opportunity to shed this reputation, especially when Sprint Cup drivers are not participating.
So long as a driver can attract sponsors, he or she will always find a seat in NASCAR. It is undeniable that Patrick's 'tough-as-nails' personality and 'drop-dead' looks make her a marketer's dream. Yet, racing ability is also part of that equation. Danica has plenty of talent and the combination will keep her popular for some time. But she must back up this potential or her popularity with fade quicker than her looks. On the smaller stage of open wheel racing, consistency was sufficient to capture all attention. Yet, this is insufficient in the world of NASCAR, where numerous racers enjoy large and diverse fan-bases. Danica's celebrity may provide an advantage, but only results will make her legendary. At 30 years old, the glamorous driver has time. However, the window for success is not unlimited.
Yahoo! Sports, NASCAR.com, DanicaRacing.com.
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