It seems like she has been preparing for this moment all her life and now that it is here she is as close to a finished product as anyone in NASCAR.
Everyone knew Danica Patrick was a good race car driver from the time she got her first real chance with Rahal Letterman Racing moving through the Barber Dodge Pro Series to the Toyota Atlantic Championship into the top level of open wheel racing in IndyCar for two years before joining Andretti Autosport for five more.
Stock cars would be next spending time in the Nationwide Series while dipping her toes with the big boys and this year will mark her first full season in Sprint Cup.
Patrick’s meteoric rise in motorsports had little to do with her on-track accomplishments because her résumé was rather thin until last Sunday. The distance between good and elite is as wide as the chasm in the middle of the Grand Canyon although she does have something few good drivers have, a high powered sponsor in tow. That will draw the interest of any team owner.
The now 30-year old and GoDaddy.com hooked up in 2006 and that began a marketing career that has exploded to where you see her hawking everything from antifreeze to insurance. Even in her early days in IndyCar there would be a trailer, right in the middle of the fan area, selling just Danica Patrick memorabilia.
Despite mediocre overall results, she had become the darling of racing. She was dubbed the “first real media star in IndyCar since (Mario) Andretti and (A.J.) Foyt,” by team co-owner Bobby Rahal, a championship driver in his own right. But as she was in the middle of on-the-job training to better her track presence, she was afflicted with the same verbal tick that runs rampant throughout professional sports, the “um” followed by the dreaded, “you know?”
Granted, Patrick was being groomed to be a race car driver and dealing with the media was not a priority. You can get away with speech impediments on the lower rungs of motorsports but the higher you climb the ladder the more important it becomes.
IndyCar did not do Patrick any favor by constantly running her out there for interviews and public appearances because she had become more to their sport than consistent winners like Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan or even the late Dan Wheldon and the constant you-know filled audio took away from what she and the racing series was trying to accomplish.
Fast forward to her first taste of stock cars and you immediately noticed something was changing. The “you know” tick was slowly disappearing and the “um” was now becoming a needed thought pause. After becoming the first woman in the history of NASCAR to win a pole, and to do it for The Great American Race, Patrick bounced from one media outlet to another she was as eloquent as any public speaker on a national stage. And it was one heck of a stage too.
Dale Earnhardt. Jr. has had a ten year run as NASCAR’s most popular driver, but it was suggested that after Patrick’s super Sunday she could give Junior a run for his money. If she manages to win the Daytona 500 this Sunday the odds of that happening could drop to even money.
And there will be plenty of people who will be tuning into her post-race interviews.