My brain on NASCAR: Patrick more than just a pretty face

All this bellyaching I keep hearing about Danica Patrick is beginning to get on my nerves. It’s everywhere; on the radio, on Internet message boards and in every NASCAR conversation I’ve had since the announcement that Patrick would be a fulltime NASCAR competitor in 2012.

The phrasing is different according to who you’re talking – or listening – to, but the litany of complaints generally remains the same.

The first and perhaps the weakest is that Patrick has had everything handed to her on the proverbial silver platter, and hasn’t earned her way into NASCAR’s top two series.

Where I come from, earning something means working hard to get what you want, and Danica has proven herself to be one extremely dedicated worker.  In a story that should sound familiar to fans of almost every driver in the Cup Series, she began her racing career in go-karts at the age of 10 before moving to England at age 16 to compete in various open wheel series.

Patrick began racing in the IndyCar Series fulltime in 2005, when she was named Rookie of the Year for the season as well as for the Indianapolis 500. In 2008, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race. She is also the highest-finishing woman in the storied history of the Indianapolis 500.

So we might think open wheel cars look a little funny and she may have been whizzing around “across the pond” rather than spending half her life zipping around dirt tracks on Saturday night, but you have to concede that Patrick has made the effort and put in her time. In fact, as that rare and elusive animal known as a woman in racing, she has been a groundbreaker in many ways.

Another oft-repeated comment about Danica is that she isn’t dedicated to NASCAR. This may stem from an interview a while back in which she was asked if she would ever consider moving from IndyCar to NASCAR. Her response was something to the effect that the NASCAR season was too long, that she didn’t want to race 36 times a year, perhaps making some diehard stock car fans experience a little bit of the “woman scorned” syndrome: OK, if she doesn’t want us, we certainly don’t want her.

But that was a while ago, and Danica – who is still only 29 years old, remember — has matured, and apparently has also discovered that sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. She will race more than 36 times this year; in addition to a full Nationwide Series season with JR Motorsports, she will compete in 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, including the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the Daytona 500, with Stewart Haas Racing. Also, she announced recently that she will forgo the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend in favor of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Her boss, three-time Cup Series champion and Stewart-Haas Racing owner Tony Stewart, certainly doesn’t seem to question her commitment. “The thing you see in Danica right away is how determined she is to be good at what she does,” he said. “She’s very dedicated to taking the time and effort to make the transition from Indy cars to stock cars. She has talent, she has the right mindset, and she has the proper drive and determination. It doesn’t matter who it is you’re looking for, those are the key attributes that you look for in a driver, and Danica’s got them.”

Rounding out the top three is my personal favorite Danica diss: “She’s nothing but a pretty face.” Really? The reason she can’t be taken seriously as a professional athlete is because she’s good-looking? Are only those who are average in appearance allowed to excel in sports? Someone should share this information with Tom Brady and Maria Sharapova; Kasey Kahne and David Beckham might need to know as well. That’s just silly.

Excellence in athletics is based not on appearance, but on performance. True race fans know what an asset Patrick is to the sport. She should be able to hold her own on the track, particularly in the Nationwide Series. She is polarizing, one of those people who, whether you like her or you don’t, is always going to have your attention. As a role model, she is one of the best examples out there for little girls who dream of being behind the wheel instead of behind a desk. She will bring even more attention to our already wildly popular sport; how is that a bad thing?

If pretty is as pretty does, NASCAR in 2012 may well turn out to be a beautiful thing to see.

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

 

Image is courtesy of Getty Images/NASCAR.

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