Danica Patrick sets up fitting end to NASCAR career

Danica Patrick announced a sponsor for the Daytona 500 on Thursday, but has yet to confirm a team or car or crew.

She has the money, and now she’ll take it to a willing team eager to accept the dollars. Such a team shouldn’t be hard to find.

It’s a fitting scenario for the final race of Patrick’s NASCAR experiment, because the start of her tenure aligned with the beginning of the pay-to-play era at the Cup Series level — and she leaves with it having become a full-blown trend.

Patrick is not to blame for that. You can pin it on the economics of the sport. NASCAR has undergone a big change in recent years, and much of the evolution coincidentally came during the time Patrick was around.

It’s worth remembering that as recently as 10 years ago, race teams had more power than sponsors. Finding sponsorship was separate from finding a driver; the two didn’t come as a package deal. Thus, teams could essentially put whoever they wanted in the car.

Sure, you had Paul Menard and the Menards sponsorship in Cup, starting in 2007. But “bringing a sponsor” was mostly associated with Xfinity and Trucks and didn’t crack NASCAR’s top level until earlier this decade.

Patrick’s deal with GoDaddy, which she brought to Stewart-Haas Racing, showed the power of such an arrangement in Cup. She was able to keep her job despite a lack of success — something that seemed to anger fans initially but later became accepted as the way of the world.

Ultimately, you know how the story ended up. As her teammates won 22 races and recorded 124 top-five finishes in Patrick’s five full seasons, she had zeroes in both those categories. In 190 career Cup starts, she had seven top-10 finishes and posted an average finish of 24th.

But she always had enough sponsorship to secure her seat, regardless of the results. And had that continued to be the case, she would still be racing full-time today.

That started to change when Nature’s Bakery unexpectedly bailed at the start of last season, though. After cobbling together eight different sponsors to get through 2017, SHR and Patrick couldn’t find a major partner to fund the car in 2018.

Once the money was gone, so was she. And now her seat is set to be filled by another driver with funding: Aric Almirola, who arrived with significant sponsorship from Smithfield.

That could have been a disappointingly quiet end to her career, but Patrick wanted to go out in a big way. So she decided to do the “Danica Double,” finishing her career with the Daytona 500 and Indy 500. Because she can.

She personally called GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons to give him a chance to be part of her last races, and the sponsorship emerged once again. Now, with the money in hand, she can pretty much pick her seat.

That concept might have prompted some hand-wringing over the state of the sport back when Patrick first entered NASCAR. But these days, after Patrick helped gain acceptance for such arrangements, it’s just the way business is done.

 

NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.

News Analysis: Danica Patrick to retire from full-time racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will retire from full-time racing and conclude her career with two races next season: the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, she announced Friday afternoon. In an emotional and often tearful news conference, Patrick said she wasn’t forced into leaving NASCAR but was “nudged” into the next phase of her life after a ride for 2018 did not materialize. The 35-year-old has seven top-10 finishes and no top-fives in 189 career Cup Series races. Patrick acknowledged she has had “a little bit more struggle on a car-to-car basis than everyone, and it took me a really long time to say that. … With stock cars, the closing rates aren’t quite as quick, so I think it showed up more over time in stock cars just because you can be more defensive than in an IndyCar.”

What it means: The Great Star Power Drain continues in NASCAR. Whether or not you thought Patrick was worthy of an elite Cup Series ride for five full seasons despite not producing results on the track, you can’t argue with the name recognition she brought to NASCAR. There are people in this country who can only name one NASCAR driver — and it’s her. Though her celebrity and fame didn’t save NASCAR from its decline or turn the sport around, Patrick absolutely brought new eyes to the sport and created new fans — many of them young females — by giving people someone different to root for. Her loss, particularly combined with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is a big blow to NASCAR when it comes to coverage in the general sports world.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): 10. This is a mega celebrity retiring from NASCAR when some people were hopeful she could somehow remain in the sport and find another team despite her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing going to Aric Almirola.

Three questions: What team will Patrick run the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 with? Can she jump back into an IndyCar and be competitive again? In a decade from now, what will Patrick’s NASCAR legacy be?

News Analysis: Aric Almirola to drive No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car next season with backing from longtime Almirola sponsor Smithfield.

What it means: Almirola will be in the best equipment of his Cup Series career after Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports resolved their legal issues. There had been a holdup in announcing this move after Smithfield’s CEO and Petty himself had a war of words during what seemed like a bitter breakup, and that apparently led to behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether Smithfield and Almirola could go to a different team as a package. That’s all behind them now, and Almirola will join Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and whoever drives the 41 car (probably Kurt Busch) at SHR next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. The primary newsworthiness in this situation appears to be making it “official,” since everyone knew for awhile now that Almirola was heading to SHR. Still, it is more newsy than other non-surprises because it’s a major team with a high-profile team owner.

Three questions: Despite spending his career in lesser equipment than Patrick, Almirola is statistically an upgrade in every category — but can he win races in the 10? Will Almirola be a perennial playoff driver now that he’s with an elite team? What exactly will Smithfield’s involvement with RPM be?

12 Questions with Danica Patrick

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues with Danica Patrick of Stewart-Haas Racing. I spoke with Patrick at Martinsville Speedway. This interview is available both in podcast and written form.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Are you talking about me, or are you talking about in general?

Your success as a driver, like how you got here. Is it because you’re naturally talented or your hard work?

Well, I got here by determination and believing I could. It’s that simple. And then I would say that to open it up to something that your question wasn’t exactly — I would say once you get to this level, I think we’re all talented, so then it depends on so many other circumstances, which is why you see a driver all of a sudden emerge and maybe submerge every now and again, depending on circumstances.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Man, I don’t think you can pitch a fan. I think a fan is your fan because they decide to be and not because you’re offering free candies or a lifetime of happiness.

I think you decide who you cheer for based on perhaps history, family, maybe who you used to cheer for — like if you cheered for Jeff Gordon, you may cheer for Chase Elliott now just based on the alliance with that number and team and history. But otherwise, it’s personality, and I can’t fake a fan. You really can’t. It will all come out eventually if you can for a little while.

So I don’t think you can make a fan yours just by saying, “Be my fan” and telling them a good reason why.

But if you offered free candy or a lifetime of happiness, I might be convinced.

(Laughs) It’s a pretty good promise and I can do the candy part, but I can’t control the other one.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I would say that the hardest thing away from the racetrack is balancing out all the other things I have going on. It’s decompressing when things get busy. If I had to pick one thing, it’s when things get really busy, it gets hard to sort of regroup and you really have to look day by day instead of just the next month because you might not have a lot of room to breathe. But that’s just kind of in life for everybody; there are phases that you go through where you’re like, “Man, I just gotta focus on today.”

But I think pertaining to just what I do — it’s not necessarily hard, it’s just different — and this is just because of what we do and who we are and being exposed publicly, it’s just even simple things like the safety stuff. Just being smart about what you do and what you put your name on and access that’s available, things like that. Just simple safety protection, whether it’ll be safety from people or just safety from people wanting to know more about you.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

I don’t mind, but I would say if I was out to dinner, the most desirable communication would be if someone came over after dinner was over and just said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’m a huge fan, good luck this weekend.” That would be like, “Wow, that was super polite (and) they acknowledged, which takes guts.” I know, because I’ve been in that position before when I don’t want to go up to somebody and say anything because I’m embarrassed or I don’t want to bother them. So it took the bravery, but they were polite enough to keep it very simple and acknowledge instead of trying to have something to take with them.

So they get respect points for playing it cool.

Yeah, because the bravery is just coming over. That’s the hardest part. And sometimes it’s almost easier to say, “Will you sign this?” because it’s a very simple request, but it’s harder to have to say something sometimes, I believe. So for me, that’s the most perfect kind of situation that you can have in public with a fan.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I don’t know. I feel like you guys have so many races and so much time, there probably isn’t much that you don’t cover. Is there something that you wish you could cover more of that you’re not allowed to?

What goes on in the driver/owner lot. You know, who’s friends with who.

(Laughs) That’s easy, we’ll tell you.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Well outside of Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.), because we live in the same house … probably Ryan Blaney. We stopped by and said hi after we went to the Aaron Lewis concert, and so that was the last. He’s having a Halloween party, so I requested that he change the date from Sunday to Monday, but he informed me/us that he has something to do on Monday.

So you’re like, “This is much more convenient if you change the date to Monday,” and he’s like, “No?”

He said, “I could, maybe,” but he has something Tuesday morning or something. He had a good reason. So I understand now.

It’s gonna be a late night after the race.

I just thought it was a young buck in his 20s who was like, “Let’s party after the race,” and here I am, 35, like, “Can we do it the next night?”

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

That is pretty much what we are. If you want to know, you just have to travel to another country and get a visa to go work and your visa says, “Entertainer.”

That’s interesting. That’s proof right there.

When I raced in Japan, my passport said “Entertainer” on it.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Bring it on. I can’t get my finger far enough out for someone to really see it, I mean, shoot, my fingertips (barely) get out there. Let’s say I’m hot and I wanna stick my hand out the window to bring in some cool air. It’s fingertips. That’s it. Like everyone can hang their (hands out), they’re resting on the window and hand all the way out. I can’t even get (fingers) out there. I guess if you saw one finger, just imagine it’s the middle one.

So you don’t mind if it gets done to you as well?

I don’t care. If I deserve it, you should give it to me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, for sure, absolutely. You’ve got the drivers that you know are difficult and you cut them no slack, therefore your situation perpetuates. And if you have someone that you get along well with, then that situation also keeps going because you treat them the same. Each are self-fulfilling.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Jay-Z and Beyonce.

When you filmed the music video (in Monaco)?

Yeah. Could Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) say the same, do you think? He was there, too.

I think that was his same answer.

That was a pretty baller week.

How were they? How did you find them?

Jay-Z was very nice and he was excited that he could facilitate Dale and I meeting, because we’d never met before. And Beyonce was very, very quiet. So yeah, she’s kind of shy. So it makes sense why she has an alter-ego diva girl. But everybody was really cool, and it was a first class production. I mean, we were in Monte Carlo, so it was pretty good.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I always kind of think to myself, “Be nicer.” But it’s just that my reaction to someone, if they’re not perfectly nice, is so ridiculous and over-the-top-mean that no one ever remembers the first blow. So yeah, I wish I could tone that down just a little bit. It doesn’t need to be so aggressive.

Like if somebody’s rude, you match them, so to speak?

Oh, no, no. I don’t even match. You can’t even remember the first mean when you get done with my mean. And I wish I could tone that down a little.

Maybe wait for Phase Three. Like Phase One, they’re mean. Phase Two, I’m like, “Come on buddy.” And then the next one is, maybe it’s (Phase) Four, and then he responds, and then it’s like, “OK, you wanna go? Let’s go.” Because yeah, I’m just not very shy and I have no problem with confrontations. So I kind of go right to the end of it. So I wish I was a little more patient in that category.

12. Last week I was at the F1 race and I interviewed Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, and I asked them to come up with a question for you. Kevin wanted me to ask you: Who has bigger balls, NASCAR drivers or F1 drivers?

Collectively NASCAR, because we have so many more drivers. I mean, that’s 39 sets of balls versus like 22? How many are there (in F1)?

Twenty, I think.

Twenty. That’s a lot more balls in NASCAR.

But in a simple, diplomatic, honest answer, to get to the top level of anything is difficult. I don’t care who you are. And my balls are called ovaries, so I guess I count, too.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask a driver in general?

My first thought is to ask a really weird one so people will be like, “What?” My first question would be, would you rather stay on Earth and eat the steak and be kind of miserable but the steak tastes really good, or would you rather live on another planet in pure bliss? You don’t know what it’s gonna be like, though — you just know you’re always gonna be happy.

So basically, stay on earth in the current situation, how it is now, but if you’re taking a gamble, it could be way better on the other planet?

Yeah, what would you do? Would you take the chance, or would you stay here? Do you like it here?

That’s a good question. I may put that permanently next year on the 12 Questions.

Oh wow. I like that. Wow, what an honor! Thank you! I thought I’d be met with, “Yeah, think of another one.” (Laughs)

News Analysis: Danica Patrick will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will lose her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing following this season after SHR secured sponsorship for the No. 10 car with a different driver, she said in a Tuesday afternoon Facebook post. This comes after Smithfield said earlier Tuesday it would leave Richard Petty Motorsports for SHR next season.

What it means: Barring the unexpected emergence of a sponsor with a different team, Patrick’s time in NASCAR may be coming to an end. Her return to SHR was dependent on sponsorship, and that necessary funding proved to be elusive — something that could be blamed both on the economic climate in NASCAR and Patrick’s lack of results. From the time she arrived in NASCAR from IndyCar, Patrick had been billed as a driver whose massive marketability could boost the sport — but the results never followed. Her average career finish is currently 24th over 180 Cup starts — this despite being in top-tier equipment throughout — and she has yet to score a top-five finish in a race. Despite the lack of success, Patrick is perhaps the most well-known NASCAR driver outside the sport — yes, even more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and one of the most recognizable athletes in the country. Losing a driver of her popularity and star power is yet another blow to NASCAR after it has seen Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Earnhardt all say goodbye.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. This move seemed to be in the making for months, but it’s above average on the interest scale — like everything with Patrick — due to the driver. Still, the bigger news would be when and if she decides her driving days are over.

Three questions: Does Patrick still want to race, or is she ready to move on and do something else? Has Patrick’s time in NASCAR been a positive or negative for future female drivers trying to break into the sport? If this is the end, what will Patrick’s legacy be?

News Analysis: Smithfield leaves Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: In a Tuesday morning Facebook post, Smithfield said it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports and join Stewart-Haas Racing next season. On Sunday, Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com reported Smithfield backed out of a handshake deal to return to RPM’s No. 43 car next season after the team proposed it hire Bubba Wallace to replace Aric Almirola. Richard Petty later confirmed the sponsor broke its handshake agreement. A desire for increased competitiveness resulted in Smithfield moving to SHR, which said in a statement the move will come with a “driver who will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup.” EDIT: In a statement later Tuesday afternoon, RPM said Almirola will not return to the team.

What it means: While it’s nice SHR found a high-paying sponsor for one of its cars to go along with a new driver, the immediate focus will be on RPM’s future. This is a devastating loss for the No. 43, as the team thought Smithfield was set to return next season. It’s mid-September and RPM doesn’t have a sponsor for most of its 2018 races — and likely hasn’t been looking for one if it believed Smithfield would be back. This could put RPM in serious jeopardy as an organization, since it now must scramble to find funding in order to compete next season. As for SHR, it’s unclear which driver could end up with the team — but we now know the lineup will indeed change for next season. Danica Patrick has said her return to the No. 10 car is based on sponsorship, while SHR previously said it intends to retain free agent Kurt Busch in 2018.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Spencer’s reporting took the surprise out of this news, but it’s still very significant in terms of RPM’s future. If Smithfield’s move results in the No. 43 car not being on the track in some form next season, it’s a pretty major story for NASCAR. In addition, the SHR piece of this will play into Silly Season news with an unspecified driver movement.

Three questions: Will Almirola be able to go with Smithfield to SHR, or does this mean a free agent like Matt Kenseth will get that seat? Can RPM find enough sponsorship to run a full schedule in 2018? Will there be Subway-like backlash toward Smithfield, or will fans view this as a business decision and be OK with it?