By Jerry Bonkowski
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “I know it’s not going to be easy.”
Spoken numerous times over the last three months, those words have proven nothing short of prophetic by the person who uttered them, namely one Danica Patrick. While her shift from Indy Car to full-time status in NASCAR for 2012 has been highly anticipated, it’s started out in a rather less than auspicious manner.
After part-time stints the last two seasons, Patrick’s start to her first full-time season in the Nationwide Series on Saturday began well, but didn’t exactly finish the way she had hoped. She started the race from the pole, but was knocked out in a crash on Lap 49 after her car was struck in the rear - by her own Junior Motorsports teammate, Cole Whitt, no less! (Whitt was involved in a couple of other incidents during the race, including spinning Kyle Busch on pit road, yet managed to rally to end as the race’s highest-finishing rookie in fourth place!)
Patrick eventually finished 38th in the 43-car field, 48 laps off the pace.
Saturday’s wreck was not as hard of a jolt as her head-on smash into the retaining wall during Thursday’s Sprint Cup Gatorade Twin 150 Duels.
Two wrecks in two races in three days makes you wonder if Patrick’s run of bad luck and misfortune will turn into a trifecta on Sunday in Speedweeks’ main event, the Daytona 500.
Not if she has anything to say about it. But, ultimately, that could also be out of her hands, as her wrecks Thursday and Saturday were both caused by other drivers - Aric Almirola got into her Thursday, and Whitt was less than a hospitable teammate on Saturday.
It’s not going to be easy, indeed.
But remember one thing, this is Daytona, a place where anything can happen – and more often than not does happen. For all the dismal fallout that has resulted from her two wrecks, the exact opposite could happen Sunday.
Yes, Danica could wind up becoming the first woman to ever win the Daytona 500.
You read that right. If she avoids wrecks throughout the 200-lap event, if she hooks up with good drafting partners and finds herself in the right place at the right time – like the way Kyle Busch passed Tony Stewart to win last week’s Budweiser Shootout – the driver of the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet could potentially vault from NASCAR curiosity to overnight worldwide sensation.
Don’t laugh. Did anyone expect Trevor Bayne to win last year’s Great American Race?
So give me one good reason why Patrick can’t do the same in her first official Sprint Cup debut? While admittedly unlikely, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Let’s extrapolate that possibility one step further: if, say, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins on Sunday, breaking a 3 and a half year winless drought that currently sits at 129 consecutive races, it would be the biggest story in NASCAR and perhaps biggest sports story nationally.
But if Patrick were to find her way to victory lane – potentially pushed by teammates Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman, or potentially even Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself (for whom Patrick races on the Nationwide circuit) – it wouldn’t be just the biggest story in this country, it would be the biggest sports story in the world, no ifs, ands or doubt about it.
Pity the poor NBA if that happens: It’s holding its mid-season classic, the NBA All-Star Game, just 50 miles away in Orlando, also on Sunday. If Danica were to win, it’s unquestionably the biggest story from Daytona to Dubai.
Granted, Dale Jr. has been the face of NASCAR for the past decade, even if his popularity hasn’t matched his performance, especially the last six seasons, during which he’s managed just two – count ‘em, only two – wins on the Cup level.
But the uniqueness of Patrick and what she brings to a traditionally male-dominated sport can’t be ignored. She’s not a freak or a curiosity. She’s a bonafide racer who just happens to be of the female gender. That’s the only difference that separates her from Earnhardt, Stewart and every other competitor in the sport.
She has asked for her chance, aggressively pursued her chance and now, finally, has that chance when she starts the Great American Race, aka NASCAR’s Super Bowl, aka stock car racing’s version of the Indianapolis 500.
And whether Patrick ultimately becomes a huge success or not in NASCAR, it will be based solely on her talent and ability – or potentially lack thereof – and not the fact she looks better in a bikini than Earnhardt, Stewart, etc.
Patrick wants to be graded on her racing ability, not her measurements. She wants to be looked upon as a legitimate contender and role model, not a freak of nature. She wants to be called race car driver first and female second. She can do something about the first, but when it comes to the latter, as Lady Gaga would say, she was born that way.
Sure, there are other females in the sport, including Johanna Long (who finished ahead – 21st, to be exact – of Patrick in Saturday’s race), as well as Jennifer Jo Cobb and Chrissy Wallace (neither of whom raced Saturday). But none has the kind of pressure upon nor faces the kind of scrutiny that Patrick faces in 2012.
And that same pressure and scrutiny will only get worse from here on out. If things go the way she hopes, Patrick will make the jump from full-time in the Nationwide Series to a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2013. Wisely, she’s giving herself an out, though: if she feels she needs one more year of Nationwide seasoning, her promotion to full-time in the Cup ranks could be delayed until 2014.
So, while her start in 2012 has been disappointing, it just takes one good race to potentially turn things around 180 degrees … and could lead to even bigger and better things ultimately.
Say these words to yourself a few times: Daytona 500 champion Danica Patrick, Daytona 500 champion Danica Patrick. Daytona 500 champion Danica Patrick.
You have to admit, it has a pretty good ring to it. And even though she knows it won’t be easy, if she were to win Sunday, she could make it look easier than it really is.
And potentially finally erase the doubters who still question her ability and whether she belongs in NASCAR or not.