Patrick's biggest impact may be off the track
With Cup debut at Daytona and full-time Nationwide slate, Danica's reach growing
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
February 24, 2012 4:12 PM, EST
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The defining image of these Speedweeks thus far isn't a car in Victory Lane, but a vehicle into the wall. Danica Patrick's harrowing crash in a qualifying race Thursday at Daytona International Speedway destroyed her primary race car for the Daytona 500, and buckled the energy-reducing barrier that runs along the backstretch. Yet one day after the biggest wreck of Patrick's young NASCAR career, the only lingering effects for the driver were a sore foot she hit on the clutch pedal, and a sore arm she banged on the side of the seat.
Part [of that is] because I'm used to it, and the other part is, what's not to like? I'm followed well, and I have lots of great fans, and I'm always grateful when people write nice things about me.
-- DANICA PATRICK
"Everything feels pretty good," said Patrick, whose old open-wheel instincts of taking her hands off the wheel at the point of impact perhaps saved her from injury. Her husband, a physical therapist, helped her work out a few sore areas Thursday night, and she skipped the first of two Sprint Cup practices Friday while her crew prepared her backup race car. Beyond that, all systems are go for only the third woman to start the Daytona 500.
"I was relaxed in the car," she said, "and I felt good, I felt comfortable, and I feel more ready for Sunday."
She may have started only a few dozen stock-car races at this point, and she may be racing only a limited Sprint Cup slate this year, but Sunday is when this combination of NASCAR and Danica Patrick truly shifts into high gear. To a certain degree, she already drives television ratings and merchandise sales. She's already an almost constant topic of conversation among those in the media and the grandstand. Her crossover appeal already brings NASCAR the hopes of increased ticket sales and a broader fan base. And it's all really just beginning, given that Patrick is only now venturing into the elite Sprint Cup Series, and carrying with her a sea of untapped potential on the track as well as off. Her thunderous crash on Thursday may not be the biggest impact Patrick makes this weekend.
"It's great for the sport," said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. "Who doesn't want to see a female driver come in here and be able to race with the guys and do well and be marketable? It's great for the sport."
Success on the race track, of course, will ultimately determine how much of an impact Patrick can make. For the past two seasons Patrick has competed in a limited Nationwide schedule, while maintaining her full-time status in open-wheel cars and chasing the dream of the Indianapolis 500. Now she's solely a NASCAR driver, running full-time and for a championship on the Nationwide tour in a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Daytona 500 is the first of 10 starts she's scheduled to make on the Sprint Cup tour in a car that was originally fielded by Tony Stewart, but is now technically owned by Tommy Baldwin as part of a deal that locked her into the Great American Race.
Even in limited appearances thus far, she's shown signs of progress in the heavier, full-bodied cars, which allow for a degree of aggression on the race track that seems to fit Patrick's feisty nature. Her fourth-place finish in a Nationwide event at Las Vegas last year was the best ever for a female at the sport's national level, and she placed 10th in her most recent Nationwide race at Daytona. Sunday she will chase the best finish by a female in the Daytona 500, which is 11th by Janet Guthrie in 1980. On a Daytona track where the aerodynamic draft helps to equalize competition, Stewart thinks she's capable of much more.
"Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year [at this time]?" he said, referring to the 21-year-old driver whose unlikely Daytona victory stunned NASCAR a season ago. "Anything can happen here. It is anybody's ballgame. She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did .... There is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."
Frenzy of attention
To this point, Patrick has been able to move the needle despite only dipping a toe into NASCAR. The immense popularity that made her the biggest star of the IndyCar ranks, and magnified her attempts to win the Indianapolis 500, has been evident from her first days in a stock car. Television ratings for her 2010 Nationwide debut at Daytona were up 33 percent over the same race from a year earlier, according to The Nielsen Company. Of the 13 Nationwide events she started in 2010, 11 experienced increased viewership from the previous season. Last year, as Patrick became a more regular figure around the NASCAR scene, ratings increased for half of her 12 Nationwide starts.
She's talented, she's passionate about what she does. But it also, I think, helps that she's different and she's a woman. That just works well with our brand, and I think it works well with consumers, too.
-- JENNIFER HANLEY, Nationwide Insurance senior v.p.
Now that she's set to make the most anticipated Daytona 500 debut since Earnhardt Jr., and is running full-time for the championship on the Nationwide Series, those numbers figure to be on the upswing yet again.
"She is someone who clearly has brought new fans to the sport," said Rich Feinberg, vice president for motorsports at ESPN. "She represents appeal to a younger demographic, which is an important area for us to grow our viewership base, and she's a darn good race car driver."
And all that comes before her first start in the Daytona 500, easily the most-watched NASCAR race of the year. "Sunday's 500 will definitely be the largest audience to ever see her race," said Mark Dyer, senior vice president at International Management Group, and one of Patrick's agents. "... She's had mega-audiences see her play a part in a television commercial, but she's never had the kind of audience that's going to see her race Sunday afternoon."
In terms of merchandising sales, Patrick ranked in the top 15 among all drivers last season according to the NASCAR.COM Superstore. Heading into the Daytona 500, she's moved into the top 10. Nearly 80 percent of NASCAR's Fan Council, a feedback group comprised of 12,000 avid followers of the sport, believes Patrick is good for the series. She ranks in the top five in terms of awareness of NASCAR drivers among the U.S. population, according to NASCAR.
But statistics don't capture the essence of it all. Witnessing the frenzy of attention that surrounds Patrick at a major race track like Daytona sharpens the focus on what NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps calls the "heightened awareness" she brings to every event she's involved in. That's certainly the case in the days leading up to the Daytona 500, where her every move has been tracked by photographers, reporters and fans. Patrick received one of the largest ovations during driver introductions prior to Thursday's qualifying races at Daytona, further proof of her acceptance among the NASCAR faithful. And all the NASCAR races she's competed in to date still don't equal a full season.
"I think you have to take all things in account," Phelps said. "Is she responsible for every ratings increase? ... Probably not. Her merchandise sales are what they are, and they're robust, and they're going to be even better this year, obviously with the Sprint Cup ride part-time. So it's hard to quantify what that effect is. You can certainly qualify it, because you can see it. You can see the attention that she gets from a fan perspective, the attention that she gets from a media perspective, the fact that she's able to get sponsors to want to be with her and partner with her like GoDaddy. There's clearly something there."
There has been since her first days in major open-wheel racing, when Patrick's tenacity and close calls at Indianapolis -- she's finished third and fourth in the Indy 500 -- made her one of that discipline's few real American stars. Since making the move to NASCAR, that level of attention has increased proportionally to the stock-car league's higher profile. But Patrick seems used to it all.
"I enjoy being different. I enjoy being unique," said Patrick, who on Friday won her first Nationwide pole position. "I enjoy it all, I really do. I choose to look at the positives that come with it instead of the negatives, and that it's a balance. ... Part [of that is] because I'm used to it, and the other part is, what's not to like? I'm followed well, and I have lots of great fans, and I'm always grateful when people write nice things about me. I feel good."
Patrick's influence even extends outside the NASCAR sphere -- Tuesday she became only the fourth NASCAR driver, and the first without a championship, ever to address the National Press Club in Washington. "She gets NASCAR into places where it's hard for them to go sometimes," Dyer said. Nationwide uses her as a spokesperson, and her crossover appeal has translated into a higher level of brand awareness for the company.
"I'm not going to say other drivers don't have the ability to do that," said Jennifer Hanley, Nationwide senior vice president. "Obviously, her Indy experience, she brings that with her. She's talented, she's passionate about what she does. But it also, I think, helps that she's different and she's a woman. That just works well with our brand, and I think it works well with consumers, too."
All eyes on her
It all starts, though, on the race track. Daytona suits Patrick, partly because she's at her best on big, fast tracks, and partly because the restrictor plates used on the 2.5-mile facility tend to bunch up the field and determine a winner based on positioning and aerodynamics as much as anything else. Regardless of her performance at Daytona, her real challenge may come in the weeks ahead, when NASCAR moves onto a variety of different-sized tracks that will place more of a premium on experience.
She's already a sensation. If she starts winning races, that's only going to add fuel to the fire, to be sure.
-- STEVE PHELPS
"A lot of eyes are on her," said Dale Jarrett, a former NASCAR champion who is now an ESPN analyst. "I'll be quite honest, I was very skeptical whenever she came over. Could she handle these cars, get in, and mix it up? I'm a fan. I think she can do it. Is she going to go out and set the world on fire? That's going to be difficult to do, because she's up against the best in the world."
IMG's Dyer said that while Patrick's goals aren't gender-specific -- like every driver, she wants to win races and championships -- she realizes how significant it would be to become the first woman to win a race at NASCAR's national level. Given how male-dominated NASCAR has been for most of its 64-year history, a Patrick victory at Daytona could have a sports-transcending impact not unlike Tiger Woods' victory at the Masters in 1997. Given how popular and marketable she is already, a victory in any national-series event could be an unprecedented boost to the sport.
"I think there certainly is that ability," NASCAR's Phelps said. "She's a crossover star now. ... She's already a sensation. If she starts winning races, that's only going to add fuel to the fire, to be sure."
A crossover star like Patrick -- and to a similar degree extreme sports athlete Travis Pastrana, who makes his Nationwide Series debut in April -- is important to NASCAR because she's capable of attracting television viewers and potential new fans who might not otherwise gravitate toward the sport. That role can bring with it equal degrees of pressure and expectation, but Patrick said she doesn't feel any of it.
"I truly like don't feel like anything more gets put on me," she said. "I feel like there's a lot of hopes, but I don't feel the pressure that ... I have to do something. Trust me, I put in my head enough thoughts that I have to do certain things, not all of them which I share with you. But I don't feel like that. I feel I'm very lucky to be in the situation I'm in. I feel lucky to be unique and different, and I feel lucky to have the fan base that I do. And if that helps in any way, or we can work together to make it better, then that's just a win-win."
If anything, Patrick seems to embrace the factors that make her stand out in major auto racing, and understand that attention comes with it.
"I don't know that anybody at NASCAR sees her as the end-all and be-all on growing," Dyer said. "She's amazingly grounded and focused. When you talk about pressure, the pressure she feels is to keep improving on the race track. The marketing stuff she does on behalf of GoDaddy and her other partners, and the stuff she does on behalf of NASCAR and the tracks -- she doesn't really feel any pressure to do that. She has a lot of marketing savvy. She has a great judgment savvy on what can move the needle for everybody involved."
Added NASCAR's Phelps: "I don't think she's weighed down by it at all. I think she's actually lifted up by it."
That certainly seems the case today. Not only does NASCAR stand to benefit from the increased attention Patrick brings, but the driver herself has completely embraced stock-car racing, despite piloting open-wheel machines for most of her career. Dyer said Patrick is happier now that she can focus solely on her NASCAR program, and although she hasn't ruled out a run at the Indianapolis 500 every now and then, she wants to retire as a NASCAR driver. "This has been very much a long-term plan," Dyer added, one that will continue with a full-time Sprint Cup effort next season.
For all the focus on Patrick's first Daytona 500, it is just that -- a beginning. There are many more races to run, many more things to learn, many more plans to be set into action. There are potentially trophies to be won, and barriers to be broken down, and young female drivers to be inspired. And only then will Danica Patrick's full potential in NASCAR begin to be realized.
"There's no doubt in my mind that winning is the goal, and the ultimate goal is to be a champion in this series, and not just break through because she's a female driver," Nationwide's Hanley said. "... She made the choice to do this. When she does this, that's certainly an expectation people have. I think she certainly has the ability and talent to do that, and it's going to be fun to watch this year."