CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Danica Patrick told ESPN.com Wednesday that she found out earlier this summer that if sponsorship could not be found, Stewart-Haas Racing would not field a car for her in 2018.
Patrick announced Tuesday that she would not drive for Stewart-Haas Racing after this season, her fifth full-time season with the team. She did not say what her 2018 plans are.
Her announcement came after Stewart-Haas Racing revealed that Smithfield would join the organization as a sponsor for 2018 but did not name a driver. Matt Kenseth said Wednesday that he would not be replacing Patrick next season. Kasey Kahne also said Wednesday that “I don’t really think the 10 is an option, it hasn’t seemed to be.’’
MORE: Tony Stewart says support for Danica “unwavering”
As for Patrick’s future?
“I just want to do what feels right and what will give me the best chance – if I’m racing, will give me the best chance to perform and get in the winner’s circle, which is what I want to accomplish in NASCAR,’’ Patrick told ESPN.com. “Or if I don’t feel like that’s something that will be possible, then I’m OK with that, too.’’
If she does not return, it could end a chapter for NASCAR’s most successful female driver even though she has never won a Cup race in 180 career Cup starts.
“I hope she can find something,’’ said Kyle Larson, who is friends with Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse. “She’s already done so much for our sport, though. She could leave right now and she’s made a great impact on it.’’
Patrick’s legacy to some will be how she reached a younger audience, while others will look at an unfulfilled career. Patrick made her Cup debut in the 2012 Daytona 500. She was the first female to race in NASCAR’s premier series since Shawna Robinson last raced in 2002. Patrick became the first female driver to start on the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013.
“I think her legacy is already established and really well across all of motorsports, not just in NASCAR, but open-wheel as well,’’ said Stenhouse, who has dated Patrick since 2012. “Racing is something she’s pursued since she was 10 years old, moving to England when she was 16. That’s kind of crazy to think about somebody moving to England when they’re 16 to race.
“I think the things that she’s been able to accomplish and do has been, I would say, the best female driver of all-time, but that’s my opinion and everyone has their own opinion.”
Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch says Patrick’s influence has been immeasurable.
“She’s meant a tremendous amount to everybody – to have pioneered the way for many women to look at our sport and that you can have the chance to be competitive,” Busch said. “She did that in Indy Car and she’s done that everywhere she’s been. I see more female racers around our country and around the world for that matter interested in racing. She paved the way. She’s a true pioneer in this day and age of social media and the power of media recognizing that she’s moving the needle even though she wasn’t running consistently up front.
“She was a very professional teammate and always willing to learn. She maybe had a bit too many rookie mistakes that lingered into the middle part of her career, but we always wanted her to finish the races stronger and to be able to get in there and get those door donuts and get the fenders crinkled up and still come back with a good finish. Some of that isn’t just being a female, it’s that open-wheel mentality that’s tough to bridge out of and all of our group right now you’re seeing a ton of talented young kids or even the veterans that have all come up through late model racing, spent a ton of time in trucks, Xfinity and know the stock cars in and out.”
Asked if Patrick belongs in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch said:
“I believe so. She’s too powerful and too hard to ignore on what she did outside of the car,” he said.“There’s many women that are in the hall of fame in the NHRA world, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be in the hall of fame here in the NASCAR world.”
Patrick’s focus isn’t on that. She’s too busy with so many other projects outside of racing.
Her first book (“Pretty Intense”) will be released in January and she has made plans for a sequel. She has opened a Napa Valley vineyard. She has launched her “Warrior” athleisure clothing line, which sponsored her car last weekend at Richmond Raceway.
“She is very passionate about all her other businesses that she has going,’’ Stenhouse said. “It definitely makes her really happy doing that. So if she didn’t have all those other things going on that she enjoyed, I think I would be a little concerned because nobody wants to just quit racing.
“But I do think she’s in a great place as far as outside of the race car and what she has going on with the winery, the clothing line, the workout book.’’