Two years ago, Richard Petty was asked if he thought Danica Patrick could win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Answered the legend known as “The King”: “Only if everybody else stayed home.”
Spoken by somebody long considered a NASCAR goodwill ambassador, the remark sounded mean-spirited and, yes, petty. But Patrick has yet to prove The King wrong.
Daytona 500: 10.a.m., Sunday, Ch. 13
Since Patrick’s transition from open-wheel racing, she’s 0 for 118 in Sprint Cup events, and 0 for 61 in what’s now known as the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s version of a Triple-A league. Patrick did produce one first-place finish in the Indy Car Series — at the Japan 300, eight years ago — which gives her a combined NASCAR-Indy record of 1-294.
That’s not quite as futile as the 2,495-game losing streak the Washington Generals snapped against the Harlem Globetrotters in 1971, although I should note the Generals realized it was in their best interest to score fewer points than the opposition. As she begins the fourth year of a NASCAR career best described as checkered, Patrick still has actual aspirations, the most ambitious of which is steering her No. 10 Chevrolet into victory lane Sunday at the Daytona 500.
A Las Vegas betting site put the odds of that happening at 60-1, making Patrick the longest long shot of a 40-driver field. The same site put her odds of winning the Sprint Cup Series at 500-1. (As a point of reference, the Philadelphia Phillies, losers of 99 games last season, have been installed as mere 350-1 long shots to win the World Series.)
Thanks to her marketing persona — a glamorous woman with a magazine-cover smile — Patrick remains a polarizing presence in a male-dominated sport that was born on the Southern back roads bootleggers once used to transport moonshine.
There is a perception, shared by Petty and many others in the NASCAR community, that if Patrick were transformed into a bald guy named Grover Stump, nobody would notice her.
And yet a recent poll with a specific demographic — 14- to 34-year-olds in the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K. and Japan — listed Patrick as the 11th-most-appealing celebrity athlete. The only NASCAR driver ranked ahead of her was Dale Earnhardt Jr., at 10th.
The public’s ability to identify Patrick is a primary reason that Stewart-Haas Racing patiently awaits a breakout season by the former Indy Series Rookie of the Year whose most significant NASCAR achievement to date was winning the pole qualifier for the 2013 Daytona 500. She finished eighth in the real race, a performance that suggested success was just around the, um, turn.
Didn’t happen. With only five other Top 10 finishes over three seasons, Patrick defines the term “also-ran.”
“I don’t know what it’s going to take,” team co-owner Tony Stewart said last month. “If Danica can have a better year than she’s had, we’ll be happy with that.”
If nothing else, 2016 will be different. She’s working with new crew chief Billy Scott — her third crew chief in four seasons — and because GoDaddy.com decided to end its association with Patrick after 2015, she’s found a new sponser in Nature’s Bakery. The company manufactures such snacks as gluten-free pomegranate fig bars, which I trust taste better than they sound.
The Nature’s Bakery sponsorship is consistent with Patrick’s focus on health. She’s a daily practitioner of yoga, something else sure to rankle those who recall when NASCAR’s top series long was affiliated with Winston, the brand with the “tastes good, like a cigarette should!” jingle.
I doubt Patrick will win Sunday, but it would be kind of cool if somebody who snacks on gluten-free pomegranate fig bars and practices yoga defied 60-1 odds.
The Daytona 500 is the ultimate crapshoot. Stewart, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Bobby and Terry Labonte never have won the “Great American Race.” The late Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time series champion, won once, in 1998, ending 20 years of frustration.
Earnhardt appeared to be coasting to the finish line of the 1990 race when a piece of debris cut his tire, enabling Spanaway’s Derrike Cope to pull off a monumental upset.
Cope entered 409 races over 25 years on NASCAR’s top circuit, and enjoyed his only two victories in 1990. But one came at Daytona, where a similar long shot will attempt to overcome the 60-1 odds against her Sunday.
Daunting odds, for sure, but seriously diminished if 39 other drivers stay at home.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org