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Danica Patrick leaves racing with a claim to be the best female driver in American history

No matter what she does in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick will be the most successful woman at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Patrick has six top-10 finishes in seven starts at Indy, including a third-place finish in 2009 and a fourth in her first Indy trip in 2005. The third is the best a woman has ever finished at Indianapolis. The other ten women who have driven in the 500 have combined for one top-10 finish.

Yet even as Patrick has outraced her female peers, many are going to remember her career for what she didn’t do instead of for what she did.

[Danica Patrick has no regrets about her racing career]

If you had big expectations for Patrick when she moved to NASCAR in 2012, you were being unrealistic. She was following the likes of IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish to stock cars. Both of them had struggled at NASCAR’s top level.

Tony Stewart, meanwhile, had not. The IndyCar champion won three Cup titles before Patrick started driving for his team in 2013. While Patrick was never going to do what Stewart did, The standard Stewart set was always going to loom over her simply by association.

Patrick set a fairly high standard for herself as well, winning the pole and leading laps in the 2013 Daytona 500 before finishing eighth.

That race would be her only top-10 finish of the season. Patrick would score just six more over her next 190 starts.

“I have this real habit of taking on challenges,” Patrick said Thursday. She’s hosting the ESPY Awards in July. “The ESPYs, right? Things like that. Going to NASCAR. Driving IndyCars. Moving to England. I just have a habit for pushing myself, to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me.  At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.”

Janet Guthrie, the woman who has the other top-10 finish in the Indianapolis 500, had five top-10 finishes in 33 Cup Series starts. Sara Christian is the only woman who has a top-five finish at NASCAR’s top level. While Patrick has more top 10s than either of them — she’s got the most top-10 finishes of any woman at NASCAR’s top level — there are already seven drivers with as many or more top 10s in 2018 that Patrick had in her NASCAR career.

It’s not unfair to say Patrick made the move to stock cars for marketing purposes. The IndyCar Series is a niche series that only rises to mainstream appeal on Memorial Day weekend. In NASCAR’s Cup Series, Patrick went from a series with 17 races a season to one with 36 that had vaulted into the mainstream sports consciousness.

And it’s fair to say the switch worked for those purposes. Patrick’s star, born with her Indy performances, grew as she was in NASCAR even if her results didn’t flourish along with it. It’s hard to say if she’d have a fitness book or her own clothing line if she didn’t move to NASCAR. And there’s more to life than racing, anyway. Sometimes people in racing forget that. You can’t fault Patrick for wanting to have a diverse life.

Patrick’s lone IndyCar victory, a win in Japan in 2008, was the first for any woman in major American motorsports. While detractors would note that it came via fuel-mileage and in an 18-car field when every other IndyCar race that season featured 24 or more cars, a win is a win is a win. No one disputes Alexander Rossi as the winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500 because he won on fuel-mileage.

Had she stayed in IndyCar she probably would have gotten a win or two more, especially if she had stayed in top-tier equipment. If we’re reflecting on Patrick’s 14-year career only in IndyCar, this conversation and column probably looks a lot different.

There would still be detractors, unhappy that Patrick’s media coverage didn’t match her success. But it would be easy to make the case that Patrick is the greatest female driver in American motorsports history.

She still may be. Even if her NASCAR success was limited her prowess at Indianapolis can’t be ignored. Patrick has finished in the top 10 in 64 of her 115 IndyCar starts. That’s a better rate than IndyCar fan favorite (and Indianapolis 500 non-qualifier) James Hinchcliffe, who has finished in the top 10 in 58 of his 111 career starts. She also was the first woman to have a full-time ride in the Cup Series.

Given how she’s set up for business success outside of racing, we may forget 30 years from now that Patrick was a trailblazing race car driver. We shouldn’t. It’ll be much easier to remember if she walks away from racing with another great finish at Indianapolis.

“It isn’t uncommon for someone to say, Are you sure you’re done? I am sure I’m done,” Patrick said.

“What if you win? I can’t think of a better way to be done than if I win.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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