Ryan: NASCAR and Danica Patrick parted on faint and familiar terms
The secret to unlocking the most candid and insightful sides of Danica Patrick in an interview was always simple but somewhat counterintuitive.
Stay away from the racing questions.
If you wanted to get her comfortable, the conversation was best steered toward the topics of lifestyle and pop culture (for which Patrick always has had a soft spot). The jokes quickly would follow about Mercury being in retrograde, the Millennials who shopped for Lululemon yoga pants on the Magnificent Mile and the appeal of a raglan sleeve.
When talk shifted on track, the guard usually went up, and justifiably: Few drivers have had their demeanors and performances scrutinized as closely, so every word was chosen carefully and, in some ways, clinically.
This isn’t implying she lacked passion for racing.
For anyone who has met the steel-cable grip of her handshake, there is no mistaking Patrick always is determined, serious and unwavering about excelling in whatever has her focus.
Stock cars just happened to become the vessel for her competitive fire and zeal.
It was almost incidental that Patrick landed in NASCAR, and now’s the moment to reflect on how and why the fit always felt less than perfect.
For the first time in five years and 181 races, the green flag will drop on NASCAR’s premier series Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway without Patrick in the field.
She will be missed by a circuit that was greatly impacted by her transcendent appeal, but Patrick probably won’t be missing much about NASCAR (at least not immediately).
In in-depth sitdowns with Brant James and Jenna Fryer, two reporters who built a long rapport and trust with Patrick and know how to channel her honesty, the most successful woman in racing revealed a mix of ambivalence and relief about stepping off the Cup merry-go-round and away from racing in general. She told Fryer she didn’t plan to watch many races nor mentor young women drivers and wouldn’t be selling gear at track, dedicating herself to her fitness books, winery and clothing line.
Yet though she could have done without the 10-month travel schedule and the tunnel-vision vibe of an insular garage, her departure wasn’t exactly dripping with disdain for NASCAR.
There is some notable indifference, but it shouldn’t be confused with a lack of spirit to conquer whatever athletic pursuit in which she chooses to commit.
Breaking a glass ceiling that stands for decades takes a certain “damn the torpedoes” swagger that Patrick has. During a 2013 interview that branched into her love of fitness and cardio, her eyes once turned black as coal when it was suggested a marathon might be out of reach.
“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have to train,” she said. “I don’t think there’d be much difference in going from 7 miles to 17 miles.”
What about 26.2?
“I feel I could just do it,” she said. “I want to do one. But I’m so competitive, I don’t know if I can go into it blind.”
“Blind” would be a fair description of how she arrived in NASCAR, which she felt offered more challenge, exposure and money than the limits she’d reached in IndyCar after seven seasons. She made no bones knowing little about stock cars in her early days.
When crew chief Tony Eury Jr. talked about “yaw” in handling, she thought he was saying, “Y’all.” After an Xfinity qualifying lap at Dover International Speedway in 2010, she embarrassingly got lost on the way back to the pit lane. And she struggled to grasp NASCAR’s peculiar lexicon.
“I don’t know if I could have studied more,” she said after her first partial season in 2010. “At first I probably jumped in a little too deep, and I wanted to see setup sheets and tried to do it like IndyCar. It’s just damn gibberish to me. Especially talking about truck arms. On a car?”
This isn’t restricted to Patrick. Many drivers wheel vehicles they don’t fully understand. In an episode of Racing Roots last year, Kyle Larson playfully was exposed for knowing little mechanically when starting out in the sprint cars he dearly loves.
For every Mark Martin and Jeff Burton who remember the weight and size of every shock and spring they ever ran, there are multi-time Cup champions who couldn’t explain the setup under their cars even if you spotted them a small army of ASE-certified mechanics.
Yet stock cars never seemed to strike Patrick’s fancy the way that IndyCar did (she told James that an Indianapolis 500 victory naturally would rank ahead of Daytona). Undoubtedly, that stems mostly from an exclusively open-wheel career path that began in go-karts and took her to Europe before returning for Indy.
But it was more than just an unfamiliar environment. Patrick has hinted a few times recently -- notably in the 2017 documentary, Danica -- that she believes her Stewart-Haas Racing crews sometimes didn’t believe in her (Tony Stewart refuted that, telling ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass at Daytona that her team was overhauled on her demand). Undoubtedly, there are traces of bitterness and resentment from a career chapter that probably feels more transactional than sentimental.
So as NASCAR moves on without her this weekend, it’s understandable that Patrick is moving on, too. Her new life is marked by a blueprint for major branding but apparently few race cars after the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
And though she didn’t win or contend regularly in NASCAR (while enduring some wicked crashes, particularly in her last season), she leaves with the respect of its stars, some of whom once openly questioned her credentials. During Daytona 500 Media Day, several credited her for an attendance surge of young girls (usually identifiable because they were clad in “Danica” T-shirts).
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson spoke eloquently about what Patrick meant to his two girls, 7 and 4. He tweeted a photo of Patrick holding his youngest, Lydia, who ran through the pits with her older sister, Genevieve, to greet Patrick before her last start.
“Danica has been someone for my daughters to look up to,” Johnson said. “That’s top of mind for me. The impact she’s had in sports, (for) women in sports.”
That impact is an indisputable part of her resonance beyond NASCAR.
For Patrick, it always has been about more than just racing.
Just ask her.