We've said before we're swearing off the hype machine surrounding Danica Patrick. Still, there's at least one important question — can she win? Leighton Irwin of The Garage Blog says this year may give us the answer. —Ed.
Danica Patrick is probably the best known driver in the IndyCar Series to the general public. Her PR machine, together with her various semi-risque photo shoots and Go Daddy ads, have made her face known to thousands of people. She almost certainly is the highest earner in IndyCar, with an income up there with many regular NASCAR drivers. This from a driver who has only managed one win in her entire car racing career — and that one was a result of good pit work and strategy plus Helio Castroneves almost running out of fuel. She never won on her way up through the minor leagues.
During her IndyCar career, until this year, she has been a high mid-field runner most of the time, especially on oval tracks. There have been several good results, usually due to good strategy. She has always struggled to some extent on the road courses despite coming up through road racing rather than ovals. Her attitude has earned her several less than complimentary nicknames among serious fans. The most common are "The Princess," "Stompin' Danica" and with her very poor showings in the Nationwide series "Princess Lapped a Lot." Many people who follow racing closely also joke about her constant "you know like," "uh" and during races "it's loooose!"
Even more telling is the fact that she has had a different race strategist and race engineer every year in IndyCar. She is on both her second strategist and race engineer this year, and more than one mechanic has refused to be on her team.
This year she seems to have regressed as a driver. Her performances on road courses have been terrible, and except for Texas very mediocre on the ovals. Her reputation as a deliberate blocker is well known; even blocking her own teammates on occasion. She is not and actually never has been a hard driver in the sense of racing people close for more than a lap or two. She always backs out of it. For someone who came up through road racing, her well known inability to set up her own car is puzzling. It seems that she has never made any effort to understand how to make adjustments to the handling, and relies on her engineer or a teammate to do it for her. She demands a car that is tight (or for road racing types a car that understeers.) To some extent this works on the Indy Cars, but she carries it to extremes. If a car gets the least bit loose, she slows down and starts complaining.
To get a stock car to go fast on an oval it has to be loose, but she cannot accept this despite being told that she needs to learn to handle that. She just keeps demanding a tight car. Until she learns to handle a loose car, she will never be fast in the Nationwide Series, let alone be able to run in Sprint Cup. A couple of times this year she would not have even made a race on her qualifying speed, but under NASCAR rules cars get in on owner points. The part-time drivers in her Dale Earnhardt Jr.-entered #7 have finished high enough to keep it in on points. Canadian J.R. Fitzpatrick finished 7th in Montreal this weekend, so the car is safely in for a while.
She has not even bothered to learn the most basic facts about the design of the cars, and only learned at the last race about the "truck bars," a standard feature of a stocker and one way of altering the handling. Drivers do not have to be mechanics, but they need to know what can be altered and what effect it will have. Every driver I ever worked with understood the basics of set ups, some far more than others.
She does not like to run close to other cars for more than a lap or two, and in the stockers you absolutely have to run inches apart for lap after lap. These days practically all Indy Car drivers and the vast majority of NASCAR drivers work out and have training programs. As far as I have been able to ascertain, she does not.
Despite all of the negatives she has been a fairly quick driver and obtained some good results. She is with one of the top teams in IndyCar, and a far-better funded Nationwide car that most of the cars in that series. But this year the results have not been there in IndyCar and even worse in the stockers. She actually seems to be more interested in photo-ops and getting on TV.
I expect her rides are secure as long as GoDaddy keeps writing the checks. However, her race TV exposure is getting less on the Versus Indy Car broadcasts, as they are more or less ignoring her. ABC/ESPN still fawns over her, but not quite as much. If the coverage really drops off, so will sponsor interest.
To me, the big puzzle is why she has never made the least effort to understand the whys and wherefores of car handling. Nor does she seem to be able to relate to her mechanics. If the car and/or the race does not go her way she has often publicly dumped on her team. Not a good way to make them want to work hard for you.
So why has she become a poorer driver this year? I don't have the answer, but I foresee her being out of racing in a year or two unless she regains the form she has displayed previously. I do not think she will ever be a real front runner, but she should be more competitive than she currently is.