Danica Patrick showed enough promise in stock cars a decade ago, said veteran crew chief Harold Holly, that she might be a championship-caliber driver by now had she forsaken open-wheel racing.
"With the speeds she's got, who knows," said Holly, who was on-site for her two-day Ford Racing test at Greenville-Pickens [S.C.] Speedway on June 24 and 25, 2002. "She could be competing for championships now, but it's really hard to say. But again, when a person like herself has the talent like that and once you come into your own in the sport you're in and you start putting the pieces together, things really begin to happen for you. She's a really smart person. And again, I think she has the talent to make it."
But Patrick, then 20, made it known, politely, but firmly, where her aspirations were.
Ford officials had been introduced to Patrick through a series of associations that included legend Jackie Stewart, and sponsored her for two seasons of Formula racing in England as a teen. Patrick had reached a juncture in her career where she had driven several types of cars and needed to commit to a path. Then-Ford Racing director Dan Davis said he just wanted Patrick to "make an informed decision."
"[Davis] was really into coming up through the ranks slowly," Patrick recalled. "I was either two steps away from IndyCar or 10 steps away from NASCAR. And I was like, "I don't think so, buddy, I'm going to take my open-wheel option, and that's what I wanted to do anyway. I took a different route. I suppose it took 10 years, but I did get there."
Patrick signed with Rahal Letterman -- then a Champ Car team -- in 2002 and ran her first season in the second-tier Atlantics series in 2003. RHL had moved to IndyCar by the time Patrick made her top-series debut in 2005. Her fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and win at Motegi in 2008 gilded her as one of the most popular figures in racing.
It took Patrick seven years to test a stock car after the first foray and three more to leave IndyCar for her first full-time season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She did it in a Chevrolet, for JR Motorsports in Nationwide and Stewart Haas Racing in Sprint Cup, adding Patrick to the list of drivers Ford or one of its teams has developed or identified early, including Jeff Gordon and Kurt and Kyle Busch, only to lose for various reasons. All three of those drivers have won championships in NASCAR's top-three series. Holly, who won a Nationwide title with Jeff Green in 2000, said Patrick displayed the aptitude to do the same, with time and effort.
In the early 2000s, Ford was making a vigorous push to test and secure young talent, and Davis said Ford officials understood the potential sitting there in one of its Nationwide cars at Greenville-Pickens, as a driver and as a promotional tool.
"I think we had a sense of that for sure," Davis said. "But what I learned along the way was forcing someone to do what you want them to do when their heart is really somewhere else is really not a good idea. I wanted her to get the sense of what it was like. I talked with Danica and her mother and her father. We had several discussions about the future and what we might want to do, and her thoughts were to stay with open wheel. That's where she thought she could do her best job and maybe consider stock cars down the road. And we were fine with that."
Patrick, under the guidance and observation of then-ppc Racing crew chief's Holly and Steve Addington, was impressive, all agree, running representative lap times against short-track veteran Mark Green at the half-mile track. Ppc at the time conducted Ford's driver-development testing and had paced prospect Kasey Kahne in 2001. Addington and Patrick are co-workers by association now as he is crew chief for Stewart's Sprint Cup program.
Holly said the most daunting obstacle was finding the means to affix Patrick's tiny seat inside the Nationwide Series car then driven by Scott Riggs.
"She was all ears, wanting to learn," said Holly, now truck series crew chief for Joey Coulter at Richard Childress Racing. "Really great attitude, did a great job with the car. Her feedback was phenomenal and the speeds were right where they needed to be."
Though their paths diverged following the test, they crossed again just as Patrick was returning to stock cars. Patrick was awaiting a flight to Daytona Beach at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in February 2010, bound for her first ARCA race during SpeedWeeks. Holly was awaiting the same plane when she noticed him.
"First thing she said was, 'Harold, is that you?'" Holly laughed. "I said, 'Yeah, it's me.' She said, 'What happened to your mullet?' I told her I had to get rid of it. Somebody told me it wasn't the '80s anymore."
Everybody has decisions to make. But sometimes they still bring you back to the same place.