There is no race car driver that engenders as much debate as Danica Patrick. She's controversial when she crashes, she's controversial when she finishes. She's talked about on track and off. But is she good or does she suck?
I feel I need to get this out of the way up front: I'm a Danica Patrick fan. She's worked hard to get where she is and I have the utmost respect for her and what she's accomplished, not only for herself but for female athletics in general.
But Danica is also one of the only athletes who accomplishes something, and everyone immediately places an asterisk after what she's done. Why is that? In some cases, it's totally justified. In others, it just isn't. This is your guide to Danica's career.
1998: Danica moves to England to further her racing career.
Good or Terrible? A Wisconsinite picks up and moves across the pond as part of a major commitment to improve her racing career. She ran against F1 champions like Jenson Button in karts and Formula Fords. That takes guts.
2000: Danica finishes second at the British Formula Ford Festival
Good or Terrible? This is the best finish ever by an American driver in the main event at the Formula Ford Festival, which is one of the most competitive motorsports events in the world. She started the race in tenth and finished right behind her teammate Anthony Davidson. That's damn impressive. And it was against people like Aussie V8 Supercar star James Courtney, IndyCar racer Hideki Mutoh, sports car and open wheel ace Adam Carroll. It's one of the most competitive races in the world and she finished second.
2002: Move back to America to race Indy Lights
Good or Terrible? Bobby Rahal, one of America's most savvy and talented race car drivers and team owners saw something in Danica and brought her back to America to race for him in Indy Lights. She had the right combo of talent and looks. Argent Mortgage came on board to sponsor her and she had one of the best seasons for a female racer in series history. She also got to lead Tommy Kendall, one of our most accomplished sports car racers, around the paddock at Long Beach on a leash when she beat him in the Toyota Pro Celebrity race.
2005: Indy 500 Debut
Good or Terrible? A monster run in Indy 500 qualifying saw her have a huge moment and almost hit the wall. Despite that, she still qualified fourth. A spin in the race sent her back in the pack. She recovered, got to the lead, but fell back to fourth at the finish. A monster effort from a '500' rookie.
2007: Move to Andretti-Green Racing
Good or Terrible? Andretti-Green was one of the highest caliber race teams in IndyCar at the time. It brought Danica a chance to work with champion level teammates like Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. It also started her high profile sponsorship relationships with Motorola and GoDaddy. She earned three podium finishes that season.
2007: Variable Ratio Steering Controversy
Good or Terrible? Danica qualified second at Mid Ohio in 2007. Her low weight, which was an advantage on ovals, proved a disadvantage on road courses. IndyCar fitted a variable ratio steering rack to a few cars in the field, which some drivers say was to benefit Danica only. She didn't win with it. It was subsequently fitted to all cars in 2008.
2008: First win.
Good or Terrible? The race at Twin Ring Motegi ended with the first ever win for a female driver in IndyCar history. Awesome. And after she crossed the line, she was crying like mad. She had worked for this moment for years, you could tell it meant the world to her.
Here are the asterisks. First, it was a fuel mileage race, and she won because she had more fuel. Second, IndyCar and ChampCar had reunited in 2008, but ChampCar was running its final race at Long Beach that same weekend.
Here's how I see it: A win is a win no matter how it happens. You take advantage of your circumstances to beat the opposition. The team's strategy and fuel conservation won that race. How is that a bad thing? Now, half the field being in California? That's not ideal, but I truly doubt anyone would say anything about the win if Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, or another regular winner got the W. Still, it has to be said, this is her only win in any series since she came back to America.
2008: The real start of Go Daddy.
Good or Terrible? Danica has always been great at using her position as an attractive female to gain sponsorship. If you could do that too, you would. And don't say that you wouldn't, you know you would. Go Daddy liked what they saw and jumped in with Super Bowl ads.
The gain of recognition for motorsports? Good. The switch from serious racing driver to celebrity? Terrible.
2010: Start of NASCAR career.
Good or Terrible? As much as I defend Danica, I cannot defend this. Basically, the way I see the move to NASCAR is Go Daddy's need for exposure and Danica's want to build her brand. A move to NASCAR increases visibility, which increases sponsorship, which increases dollars in the pockets. It's that simple. Go Daddy can't really care how she performs, they have the most marketable driver in the series carrying their colors. And no matter how Danica finishes, the paycheck just keeps rolling in.
2013: First full Sprint Cup season.
Good or Terrible? She qualified on pole and ran up front at the Daytona 500. That's good. The rest? Terrible. She was obsessively covered on TV when she was running 36th. She said she was learning. But she's been in stock cars for three years. She should be starting to get it. I do still think that Kyle Petty was wrong saying Danica is "not a race car driver," but that early passion and desire to win seems to be gone. She's in the best equipment out there and is just dawdling in mid pack.
Where's the fire? Where's the passion? Where's the anger? The Danica that wanted to fight Ryan Briscoe in pit lane at Indy is gone. The Danica that wanted to run Milka Duno off the road constantly is gone. She's figured out how to make money, and it works. Complacency is the enemy of ambition, and I fear Danica is now emphasizing money over results. I mean, she's hosting the American Country Awards now...
I'm still a fan of hers, but I find I now spend a lot more time reminiscing about good days gone than celebrating any achievements now.
And that's too bad.