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.