Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, March 30, 2015, 11:45 a.m.
Last week someone on social media – I forget whether it was Twitter, or Facebook, or Google+ — asked a question I hear from time to time. It went – and goes – something like this:
How many times are there really big stories that never get told?
What’s [insert name] really like?
Apparently my readers think I’m guilty of knowing more than I let on. I’m sure this belief about writers has been spread by writers who reply to such queries with knowing glances and arched eyebrows, thus hinting at self-aggrandizement.
I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.
There’s a certain mystery in being coy, but usually this mystery is comprised of hocus-pocus.
For the record, I let you know everything I responsibly can, unless I just don’t care enough to be concerned with something I don’t deem important. In regard to NASCAR, I don’t go to the track anymore. Writing about NASCAR still brings in a little, but I don’t cover the races like the dew covers Dixie. I write more what I like because I no longer have any obligation to write what I don’t.
I don’t particularly like writing the weekly recitation on Danica Patrick, not because I don’t like her. Though some readers will scoff at this notion, I do like her. I’d like to see her do well. What I like and what happens are different things. She finished seventh on Sunday in her 88th Sprint Cup race, and it was her first top-10 finish of the season. Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Patrick, and I did my damned-level best to be fair, and one of the reasons this was a chore is that I don’t think many people have a fair view of her. To some, her every wrong is a right. To others, her rights all add up to wrongs. Here’s that story, written before the season started (February 17) at Bleacher Report:
At some point – and 88 Sprint Cup races is a valid one – Patrick must be judged as a race driver, not a woman. I can’t imagine her differing with that assessment. What that means, at this stage, is, the fact she finished seventh at Martinsville is impressive, but it’s not as impressive as David Ragan finishing fifth because, well, fifth is better than seventh.
On Sunday, when someone else pointed out that Patrick’s fifth career top-10 finish tied her with Janet Guthrie for the all-time record for such finishes by a woman, I merely pointed out that Guthrie had compiled five top 10s in 33 career races, and it took Patrick 55 more. One gentleman took great exception to his bit of information and took the mere citing of a fact as the most inexcusable of editorial observations, and I replied that it was merely a fact, which, by definition, was not an expression of opinion at all.
So, to summarize, here I am writing about Danica Patrick, who finished seventh, instead of David Ragan, who finished fifth. If there is a problem, I am part of it.
One must concede that that more factors are in play. Regardless of how unspectacular the record is, people like to read about Patrick. Some of the same people who go nuts over the notion that they are tired of reading about Patrick … read about Patrick. It’s the same way that some readers point out that they are through with NASCAR, and they probably won’t watch any races at all, and yet they still care enough about it to read what I write, not to mention many others, apparently just so they can declare how they don’t care a bit about it anymore. It’s quite a compliment that they will read my writing about that which they no longer enjoy.
Patrick finished higher than her three Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. Kevin Harvick, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, finished eighth, Kurt Busch 14th, and Tony Stewart 20th. It was a good day for her, but comparing her to her teammates on her best day of the season to date is sort of grading on a curve. For the season, she ranks 17th in the standings, 115 points behind Harvick, who has 263, but ahead of Kurt Busch, who has taken part in only half the races, and Stewart, who is off to the poorest start of his career and almost anyone else’s.
Harvick, Busch, and Stewart are all champions. Stewart has won three. He’s 61 points behind Patrick right now. Six races have been won. I’d bet, and I think most people would, that, by season’s end, Stewart will have more points than Patrick, as will Jeff Gordon, with whom she is tied, and Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, both of whom she leads. In part, this is because Patrick is about where she figures to be. She ranks 17th. Her best-ever points finish is 27th, so she has exceeded expectations based on her past. It is, however, only six races into a season of 36. The others have arrows that have not fired as straight and true as in the past.
It’s encouraging, but six races do not a season make. She has a new crew chief, Daniel Knost, which by itself isn’t anything new because personnel around her has been shuffled before, but, she said afterwards, “I think that we’re on our way, and we’re learning what changes I feel and the best way to communicate.”
As noted earlier, I like her. It was difficult to get to know her back when I was on the beat, and my access was limited to the same contact-by-media-conference that email affords me now.
“The car has to be good, or I can’t go fast,” Patrick said, “and the first half of [Sunday’s] race was a perfect example of that. When the car is right, you can go fast, but if the driver is making mistakes and not doing a good job and crashing or getting off line, that won’t have you get a good result, and, then, overall, we can’t do well. I can’t do well if the team doesn’t provide the people and equipment that I need to perform.
“A couple years ago, if you had asked how we all felt everything was going on the team, there probably wouldn’t have been a lot of positive things to say, but that’s an example of an organization digging deep and finding ways, and, by all means, the last couple of years here, we’ve been much stronger, and it makes it much more fun out there. The team has to provide what they need to, to do well.”
To the extent that Patrick has climbed, it has been excruciatingly slow, but modest progress beats none. The story linked above notes my interest in whether or not Patrick, as a result of being the object of patience rare by NASCAR owners, can actually become successful by a slow, gradual ascent. Few of her predecessors have ever gotten the luxury of being able to run 88 races without ever finishing better than sixth.
Danica Patrick’s ceiling hasn’t been explored. No one knows where her potential has its limit or where she levels off, if she hasn’t already. Most NASCAR stars have been fast learners. In fact, I can’t remember one who wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
In spite of all the attention that accompanies every two steps forward, and every one step back, Patrick’s future remains a bit of a mystery. She has gone 88 races without coming close to winning one, and that is uncharted territory. No one else who has gone this far before has enjoyed the benefit of top-flight equipment.
My hunch is that Danica Patrick is never going to win a Cup race, never going to make a Cup Chase, and while, one day, a woman is going to blossom into a NASCAR champion, that woman is not she.
I can’t say, though, because I have no precedent to cite. NASCAR has never seen a career that matches Patrick’s, and it’s difficult to derive insight from the mere numbers she has posted.
You can find me by name on Facebook, and by @montedutton on Twitter, and I appreciate you following my non-fiction writing here, my short fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and my books that are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1