I find myself in the unusual position of defending Danica Patrick over her performance in the Daytona 500. As those who know me can attest, I’m not a Danica Patrick fan and haven’t been for quite some time but when someone acquits themselves well, it needs to be recognized instead of marginalized. Two of the biggest complaints I’ve seen and heard are: 1) She doesn’t deserve the top level cup ride she has and 2) Sprint Cup is not the place to “learn.” Besides the point, Danica did well on Sunday. I don’t see where any part of her performance was something to be ashamed of.
She doesn’t deserve the top level cup ride she has. Deserving a ride in today’s world of motor sport has nothing to do with whether you get a ride or not. Whether you like it or not, the major determining factor in getting and keeping a ride in not only NASCAR but almost any series these days is bringing and keeping a sponsor(s). If you’re going to argue that Danica Patrick doesn’t deserve her ride in Sprint Cup because of results, you could easily apply the same argument to a number of drivers including the quite popular Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sprint Cup is not the place to “learn.” Any driver beginning their first full season in the top level of a motor sport series is going to be learning regardless of how much experience they have in the ladder systems. This could very well be a valid argument next year, but not this year. I would also suggest that as she comes to the tracks for the second time in the second half of the season it would be reasonable to expect better performances.
It’s worth pointing out that Patrick finished better than Ricky Stenhouse, a two time NASCAR Nationwide Series Champion. She started on the pole, stayed in the top 10 throughout the race, and except for decision making based on inexperience on the final lap performed quite well at Daytona. She had problems exiting the pits on green flag stops but that was partly a result of the pit stall the team picked and partly her not being aggressive enough on pit exit. If the race didn’t feature as many green flag stops I don’t think we’d be talking about her pit issues. I have to admit that Danica Patrick performed better in the Daytona 500 than I expected her to. The bottom line is that she qualified well and she raced well; she didn’t make many mistakes and she stayed out of crashes by being ahead of them. I’m not sure what more you could ask of someone in her first full time Sprint Cup season.
Does this mean she’ll maintain that level of performance at the short and intermediate tracks and of the course of a full season? Of course not, that all remains to be seen. The least we the fans can do, whether we like her or not, is give her an even break. Instead of taking the short view of her season now, take the long view after the season is over and ask these questions then.