Yes, Danica Patrick is leaving. Possibly the worst kept secret in motorsports was confirmed over the weekend, with Patrick announcing her full-season deal for the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports and part-time schedule with Stewart Haas Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.
In the end, this outcome was inevitable. Given the inclusion of more road and street courses, a weakness for Patrick, and the nearly all-oval NASCAR scene (plus the obvious revenue she’ll generate), it made sense to move. She conceded as much in a pre-race interview with Versus’ Lindy Thackston. “It definitely played a part in my decision,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I have a don’t have good races and good finishes on road courses, but putting the whole weekend together has been tough. I’ve really struggled in qualifying, I haven’t done a good job, and haven’t put it all together.”
Those within the sport have been respectful of Patrick and what she brought to the series. “Danica enjoyed the most success ever by a female driver in the world of motorsports and was a leading marketing force within IndyCar," said current team Michael Andretti, whom Patrick has raced for since 2007. "I wish her only continued success in her career. I want to thank Danica for her valued time with our team. "
Randy Bernard, CEO of INDYCAR, also wished her well. “Danica has always been a great ambassador for INDYCAR, and there is no doubt she has left a positive impression on our sport. She has touched millions of fans and many that were new to motorsports. Danica attracted a fan base that every athlete and sports property in the world would love to have. We should give her a great farewell the rest of this season as she opens a new page in her career and wish her continued success with her new direction."
From the perspective of fans, though, and even a handful of journalists, Patrick’s departure has seen more “ho-hum” and “good riddance.” No longer is Patrick the beloved and charming fresh face she was back in 2005, when the sport had fallen all but completely out of the mainstream and in desperate need of a star that could capture public interest.
The once refreshing and young dynamo began to wear thin on many as her on-track performance failed to match her off-track hype and attention. Her lone victory came in a fuel mileage derby at Twin Ring Motegi on a day in which many of her compatriots were racing in Long Beach (remember that in 2008 there were split races that weekend as the former Champ Car teams raced that series’ “finale”). As a result, several people inside and outside of the business have placed an asterisk next to that victory.
Her performance since then has been up and down. She was inconsistent through the rest of 2008, but did end up sixth in the final standings, and a strong start to the 2009 campaign helped her improve to fifth in that year’s championship. That season, though, showed how much the fanfare had dimmed. Her run to third at the 2009 Indy 500, the best of any woman at the event, seemed almost forgotten in comparison to 2005, and her fifth place standing in the overall season was but a blip on the radar. Her slide then began in 2010, coincidentally when her NASCAR ventures began.
ESPN.com’s John Oreovicz summed up the overall feeling toward her departure in saying that few in the INDYCAR scene will miss her. And, the fact is, it’s likely true.
There are a number of drivers capable of filling the media void that Patrick is leaving. Dario Franchitti, Will Power, and Scott Dixon are the sport’s thoroughbreds, the top tier drivers in the series (with Franchitti on the cusp of potentially being an all-time great). Young lions Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, J.R. Hildebrand, and James Hinchcliffe lead a crop of up and coming drivers into the future. Plus, veterans like Oriol Servia, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Alex Tagliani, Tony Kanaan, and Dan Wheldon (when he competes that is) remain fan favorites and contenders each week. Even the Firestone Indy Lights appears to have a young of star in the making, with Josef Newgarden bullying his way through the series at the moment.
What’s more, Andretti Autosport is keeping Godaddy.com as a sponsor and partner, meaning that her seat won’t simply disappear. Suddenly, one of the premier teams has a car that is seemingly up for grabs, giving us a nice silly season story as the offseason approaches.
And, as far as females go, Simona de Silvestro had already displaced Danica Patrick as the sport’s favorite woman, in some circles, with her friendly nature outside of the cockpit and bulldog tenacity once behind the wheel, as displayed several times in her still budding career. And, Sarah Fisher continues to be a fan favorite, though now as an owner, as her team improves.
Four years ago, Danica Patrick’s exit from INDYCAR could have been crippling. Now, the sport is in much better shape and her move to NASCAR is met with a hint of indifference. INDYCAR can survive without her.