Commentary

Doubting Danica Patrick

Driver needs to improve fast or lack of results could quickly surpass the hype

Updated: August 22, 2012, 2:43 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Former president George W. Bush ducked the infamous shoe thrown at him in Iraq. If only Danica Patrick were so lucky.

Patrick was on the verge of possibly winning Saturday's Nationwide NAPA Auto Parts 200 when she ran over a shoe that was thrown on the track. Shortly thereafter, her car had serious steering issues; she finished an unceremonious 27th.

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick was leading mid-race in Montreal.

The fact that her latest Nationwide Series debacle was attributed by some observers to a shoe -- and at a time when she led the race for a career-high 20 laps -- is indicative of the kind of season it's been for this under-performing star. (Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said the issue was a parts problem, not the shoe.)

Even though the Go Daddy.com commercials remain in heavy rotation, Patrick's time in NASCAR this season has been as stale as flat champagne.

Patrick has crashed more this season than the stock market in 1929. She's failed to finish six races in her first full Nationwide season and has just one top-10 finish in 22 races. In her three Cup races, she's finished 38th, 31st and 30th.

No wonder she dropped a F-bomb when that shoe "knocked" her out of contention in Montreal.

The mishaps haven't all been her fault, but she certainly deserves to shoulder all the blame for her role.

Unlike a lot of other women who have tried to break into auto racing, Patrick has had the best of everything -- the best sponsors, cars, teams and marketing. And yet, other than a few encouraging flashes, she has been largely underwhelming since transitioning from IndyCar to NASCAR.

A year ago when driver Brad Keselowski -- who has won three times this season and is fifth in the Sprint Cup points race -- questioned Patrick's provocative marketing techniques and wondered whether a lack of success would hurt other female drivers, he was criticized as if he were a modern-day Archie Bunker.

"Essentially, she has opened a pandoras box for all female racers," Keselowski tweeted. "If she doesn't succeed, no female will get the chance for years to come."

Now that Patrick is two-thirds of the way through a full Nationwide season, Keselowski doesn't look so off base anymore, and it's fair to wonder if Patrick will continue to crumble once she elevates to Sprint Cup full time next season.

Maybe it's too soon to write Patrick off, but there is enough evidence to suggest that her move to stock car racing was premature.

Of course, you can't call her NASCAR bid an outright mistake because, regardless of her struggles, making the jump expanded Patrick's brand, fan base and bank account.

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick has spent plenty of time in the garage, but no time in the winner's circle.

But certainly, timing is everything. And what's painfully obvious is that now is not Patrick's time.

Will it ever be?

"I wish everybody would get off her back and just let her go race and let her learn," Tony Stewart said before the Montreal race. He undoubtedly was feeling protective of Patrick because she races for Stewart-Haas Racing on the Cup side. "Everybody is putting so much pressure on her and so much focus on her. Going to a place that you've been to is obviously going to help, but everybody needs to take a step back and let this girl learn and do what she is trying to do there."

Maybe it would have been easier to give Patrick a pass for her lack of results in stock car racing had she stayed longer in IndyCar and gained additional credibility. Although she won just once in her seven years in IndyCar, in time her comfort on that circuit could have resulted in more victories.

The downside to Patrick courting publicity and provocatively marketing herself is that she has created huge expectations. And because she hasn't met most of those expectations, she has indirectly made problems for other female drivers.

Patrick is not only a member of Stewart's racing team, but also Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s on the Nationwide circuit. Less enlightened people will use Patrick's disappointing season as a reason not to take female drivers seriously.

If Patrick is unable to be consistent, what incentive will other established teams have to sign women in the future?

Those teams might be thinking, "Why bother?" Which, undoubtedly, is what some fans are thinking as they watch Patrick flounder in NASCAR.

Today, Patrick is extremely popular and a big draw for any NASCAR event. But as we've seen with numerous athletes before her, when the results don't justify the hype, progress is put in reverse.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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