Was it really over 15 years ago when Danica Patrick made her first IndyCar Series start? It feels so recent, yet also so far.
Patrick, who turns 38 on Wednesday, was far from the first woman to start a race in the IndyCar Series, but she quickly became the most recognizable woman to ever race in North America after she finished fourth at the 2005 Indianapolis 500. That finish, the first of six top 10s in eight career Indy starts, helped catapult Patrick to mainstream stardom.
That stardom couldn’t be confined to the IndyCar Series, either. With NASCAR passing open-wheel racing in popularity before Patrick’s arrival, it was only logical that her marketing power — at the time spurred on by longtime sponsor GoDaddy — moved to a series with a much larger platform.
After a year in NASCAR’s No. 2 series, Patrick moved up to the Cup Series full-time in 2013 and promptly won the pole for the Daytona 500. She finished eighth in that race, the first of her seven top 10s in 191 career Cup Series starts as the first woman to get a full-time ride with a top-tier Cup Series team.
That 191st and final start came at the 2018 Daytona 500. Three months later, she made her final start in the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to start both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in the same season. And she ended up involved in crashes in both races.
While Patrick only won one race throughout her over 14-year career in major North American motorsports, she might have been the best driver on the continent at leveraging her popularity. If you ask a non-racing fan to name an active driver, there’s a decent chance he or she will throw out Patrick’s name even though she’s been out of racing for nearly two years.
That’s because Patrick is still as recognizable as ever, even if it’s through different areas. She wrote a workout book, hosts a podcast where she discusses life and other non-racing related topics with guests, and has her own wine label.
A scan of Patrick’s heavily-followed Instagram feed will reveal that she’s living a life far away from racing, whether its at Pebble Beach with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers or drinking wine with family. If she’s missing her racing career, she’s not showing it all that often.
And if she does miss racing, well, racing misses her more. Without Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon competing any longer, you can argue that there aren’t any active drivers who qualify as mainstream stars. As NASCAR settles back into its status as a niche sport following its mid-2000s boom, it could use a star or three like Patrick.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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