When the checkered flag falls at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend and puts a wrap on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, it will also mark the end of an era for INDYCAR that has seen more than its share of ups and downs. When the 300 miles are complete on Sunday, so too will be the full-time INDYCAR career of Danica Patrick. Sadly, what started with a bang in 2005 is going out with more of a whimper in 2011.
When she burst onto the scene in 2005, Patrick had all the looks of a star-to-be. Her Rahal-Letterman Racing team was on top of their game having arrived at Indianapolis in May of that year as the defending 500 champions, and Danica had already begun to penetrate beyond the racing world and into mainstream media markets. When her fourth-place finish began to overshadow the run of 500 champion Dan Wheldon, though, people immediately wondered why she was so deserving of all the hype. More importantly, other media outlets began to ask the reactionary question, “When will Danica try her hand at NASCAR?”
While Danica’s popularity continued to soar outside of the IZOD IndyCar Series, those who followed the Series closely soon began to see a very different side of Danica. Following physical altercations with drivers at California in 2005 and Milwaukee in 2006, in addition to her well-publicized stomp down pit road at Michigan in 2006, many fans began to wonder if Danica was indeed the role model that they had hoped she would be. Frustrations and questions were only further expounded by her continued lack of consistently contending for race victories. More and more, Danica Patrick appeared to become less about INDYCAR racing and more about Danica Patrick. Even her victory at Motegi in 2008 did little to quell her critics, and though the “Anna Kournikova of racing” label was dropped, the feeling among many that she was more interested in exploiting her sex appeal than her racing talents was not.
When Patrick made her stock car debut at Daytona in 2010, most realized that it was no longer a matter of if but only when Danica would make the move to NASCAR full-time. After enduring an entire season of will-she-or-won’t-she in 2009 (in which she ironically finished a career-best fifth in the season points standings), many people grew tired of having so much attention and devotion heaped upon a driver that had only claimed a single victory over the course of five seasons (one that many to this day discount as a fuel-mileage victory). By the time the same antics played out in 2011, most in the INDYCAR Nation just wanted the make-believe saga to be over with so that everyone, particularly the tangent mainstream media, would move on and discuss more pressing matters. In many INDYCAR circles, the news of Danica’s departure was greeting with relief rather than frustration or sadness.
The truly sad part of the Danica Patrick INDYCAR story is that she could have been a really good driver in this Series if she had stayed her course from pre-Indy 2005. She may never have become a truly great driver, but she could have been a very good one who competed for several wins every year. There is little doubt that Danica has the skills to succeed in INDYCAR if put in the right position and truly devoting herself to her craft. Unfortunately, once Danica realized that she had become bigger than the Series itself, she lost her long-term focus and has been treading water now for several years. For the past two seasons, she has done an admirable job of juggling her INDYCAR and NASCAR schedules, but it has become painfully obvious that the fire just hasn’t been there for the open-wheel series. The parallels to Sam Hornish Jr.’s 2007 season are really uncanny. He was accused of having checked out for most of that year, and his disappointing results were used as either justification for or an indication of his desire to seek greener pastures. The Danica Patrick of 2010 and 2011 has been eerily similar.
There should also be no mistake that IZOD IndyCar Series owes Danica Patrick a large debt of gratitude for all she has done for this Series. Through some of its darkest days, Patrick was one of the few pieces of the INDYCAR puzzle that was recognized outside the paddock. Her presence, while becoming somewhat of a lightning rod within the INDYCAR Nation, brought thousands and thousands of new fans into the Series and injected life into a sport that was still reeling from more than a decade of tearing itself apart. Had Danica Patrick not been around in those years to be the public face of INDYCAR, it’s very difficult to imagine who would have stepped up and brought any attention to the sport. Danica did her best to execute these duties as well as her driving duties in the best possible manner, and though some fans mistook her at-track focus as a sign of disconnection from the fans, not many people truly realized the weight that she was bearing on a race-to-race basis. With hundreds of fans mobbing her with every move, it’s little wonder that she sometimes needed a bit of time to herself and for her team.
When Danica looks back on her INDYCAR career in 15 years, I fear that she will see it as being largely incomplete. From the time Danica first began to race go-karts, her dream was to win the Indianapolis 500 -- not just to race at Indianapolis or to be competitive there (and certainly not to drive a stock car around there!). She has had some terrific runs at the 500, and she definitely has the skill set needed to win it someday. However, it will never happen as a one-off NASCAR driver. Unless Danica’s Sprint Cup career is a complete disaster and she quickly returns to INDYCAR racing full-time as Dario Franchitti did, her childhood dream is now destined to go unfulfilled. Can the riches of NASCAR make her feel better about that? Only she can answer that question. Whatever it is that she seeks now, one can only hope that she doesn’t look back and regret her decision to lose focus on her INDYCAR career and ultimately walk away from it. Time will tell.
Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.