I was on Facebook today and one of my FB racing friends posted about yesterday's Daytona 500 qualifying and praised the accomplishments of a certain female rookie. It seems to have started quite a debate as to her level of skill. While both sides seem to be taking a very passionate stance on their beliefs, it does raise the question: How good is Danica Patrick?
I'm sure NASCAR is giddy with how things played out in qualifying Sunday as Patrick - beginning her first full year in the Cup Series - took the pole for this Sunday's Daytona 500. Not surprisingly, the media is all over it and that's exactly what NASCAR wants - and more importantly needs - right now. With the exception of 2011, NASCAR's ratings are down over the last five years. Last year Chase ratings dropped 13% from the previous year. Attendance at the tracks is dropping. In fact, NASCAR just announced that they will no longer include attendance numbers in their official race reports. So some Danica press is a great way to kick off the 2013 season.
NASCAR is counting on Danica to bring fans back to the tracks and in front of the screens. The good thing for NASCAR is that she doesn't need to win to do it. As long as people still find her interesting, she doesn't even need to do well. She just has to be popular and marketable and NASCAR is benefitting from the fact that she is.
And while being the fastest driver at the biggest race of the year may seem like there should be no question as to her skill level, remember... it's Daytona. Daytona and Talladega are crap shoots. As seen in the years since restrictor plates first made their appearance, anyone can win including some of the less-funded teams who are in a good enough position. Cars have shot to the front from way in the back in the final laps. Drivers have been in the right place at the right time whether someone in front has cut a tire on the last lap or raindrops start to fall with half the race over. Ask Derrike Cope and Michael Waltrip. Although its considered NASCAR's "Super Bowl", it's not a good barometer to gauge a driver's skill.
But numbers do and while there's not many to go on, we do know that so far things have been mediocre for her at best. Her only full Nationwide season last year left her with four top-ten finishes, an average start of just over 15th and an average finish of just over 19th. In seventeen of her 33 starts she finished lower than she started. And along with her six DNF's there were a number of spins and collisions during the season.
But that was last year... a season where she did finish 10th in points. While one full season in Nationwide may not seem like enough to justify a move to Cup it doesn't necessarily mean that she's not ready. Just watch her carry herself on and off the track and you'll see an intesity that hasn't been seen in any of her female predecessors. Her passion shows through in interviews and actions. She has had NO problem speaking her mind about other drivers and we've seen her in verbal altercations with male and female drivers alike. Some will say she has more cahones than most male drivers and no one can dispute her fire. And that's the Danica Patrick that NASCAR needs.
As I type this the Facebook argument rages on. But time will tell this season if she has what it takes to be competitive in NASCAR's Cup Series. Whether she is or isn't, it doesn't matter to NASCAR. They don't need her to win. She just needs to be there. But don't believe for one minute that all she's interested in is TV ads and photo shoots while working in the occasional race. Danica wants to win. The question is... can she?