Is NASCAR’s Danica Patrick a good race-car driver? It’s an old debate

Danica Patrick's best finish this year in NASCAR came in the Daytona 500, where she started on the pole and finished eighth.
(Garry Jones / Associated Press)

Here we go again.

The debate about whether the hype surrounding Danica Patrick outweighs her skill as a race-car driver has lingered in the background ever since she reached racing’s big leagues several years ago.

Yet as Patrick, 32, muddles through her first full season in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series, the argument has jumped to the fore yet again.

Kyle Petty -- son of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, himself a driver for 30 years and now a NASCAR television analyst -- rekindled matters Thursday by saying Patrick was “not a race-car driver.”

“I don’t have a problem with her being a marketing machine,” Petty said, referring to Patrick’s deft ability to market her looks and her role as the only female in the Cup series. “She can go fast, but she can’t race.”

Petty, 53, promptly was supported by some folks on websites and social media and slammed by others because of his own record: Eight Cup wins in 829 starts.


But Petty acknowledged he “was not a great driver.” Besides, it’s his job to analyze the sport and his comments about Patrick seem buttressed by Patrick’s record.

She won one race in seven years in the IndyCar series. After switching to NASCAR, she had zero wins and one top-five finish in 60 starts in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series.

This year she’s still struggling. Her best finish in 16 Cup races so far was an eighth in the Daytona 500, where she started on the pole, the first woman to do so.

That’s been her only top-10 finish this year and overall her average finish is 26th. She’s 27th in the Cup point standings.

NASCAR superstars Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to her defense, effectively saying that learning to race 3,400-pound stock cars on different styles of tracks takes time.

And Patrick herself said “I really don’t care” what Petty said.

“It’s true that there are plenty of people who say really bad things about me,” she told reporters Friday at Kentucky Speedway, site of the next Cup race Saturday night. “You just get over that kind of stuff.”

Asked what she had to do silence her critics, Patrick replied, “You really think that I will silence naysayers? That is the answer, you don’t.”

She’s right -- and in some ways it’s irrelevant whether she ever does or doesn’t. Her team and her corporate sponsors are glad to have her. So is NASCAR. Patrick has a lot of fans. She’ll go on making millions of dollars a year regardless of whether she cracks the top 10 in points or even becomes the first woman to win a Cup race.

Make no mistake: Patrick is intensely competitive and wants to do well. She’s quick to get frustrated if she doesn’t.

Patrick came close to winning the Daytona 500, the sport’s crown jewel. She was running third on the final lap until being passed and falling to eighth. And NASCAR returns to Daytona next weekend for its summer race there, so she’ll get another shot.

But even if she wins, don’t expect the racer-vs.-hype debate to subside. As Patrick said, “There are going to be people that believe in you and those that don’t.”


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