We’ll begin this look at Danica Patrick at Indy in 2018 by looking back at Daytona in 2013. Back then, NASCAR’s annual Media Day — where the nation’s media interviews all drivers en masse — fell on Valentine’s Day. And as luck would have it, Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., two competing drivers, had just announced their then-romance. Not only did Patrick speak for 30 minutes (!) about the relationship, virtually every other driver — from Jimmie Johnson to Joey Logano to Brad Keselowski — had to field questions about Danica’s love life.
And that’s as good a snapshot of Patrick’s time in NASCAR as you’ll find.
Patrick has retired from NASCAR now, having run 191 races and managed seven top 10s and one pole. It’s not a distinguished career by the numbers, but Patrick nonetheless broke new ground and brought new fans — young, female ones — to a sport that desperately needs them.
But she never quite seemed to fit in NASCAR, never quite ran well enough to be a consistent threat, never seemed to be among the sport’s vocal echelon of drivers. It was a marriage of convenience, Patrick and NASCAR, and now that it’s over, Patrick — now preparing for the Indy 500 — is looking back with a mixture of fondness, regret, and a newfound love for IndyCar.
“I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn’t in it, and I missed it,” Patrick said Wednesday. “I remember that feeling and as time wore on, I missed that relevancy of being in the game, being someone like before the race when they’re like, ‘Who do you think is going to win today?’ My name didn’t pop up in NASCAR. Other than that first Daytona 500 (2013) when I was on the pole, most of the races weren’t like that. I missed being relevant.”
Patrick will be driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in this month’s Indy 500, and she’s spending the early days getting reaccustomed to the faster, sleeker open-wheel cars. She hit 220 mph on Wednesday, well above any mark a stock-car driver could hit, and as she drove, the feel of an open-wheeler, and the world around it, came back to her.
“It always feels like home here at Indy,” she said. “The track feels so familiar, everything from the walk to and from pit lane.”
Patrick will have no shortage of opportunity when she retires; She’s already setting herself up as fitness guru and lifestyle coach. And for her, there’s a certain poetic justice in ending her career where it began, flat-out flying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’ll be a fascinating month and a must-watch race, regardless of what you think of Patrick’s NASCAR career.
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