Danica Patrick could open doors

August, 18, 2011

Marty Smith broke the news Wednesday that we all expected to hear for quite some time: Danica Patrick will be heading to NASCAR full time starting next season. She'll drive a full Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports, with the possibility of eight to nine Cup races in Stewart-Haas Racing cars. All of this could lead to a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2013.

The news begs the question: Why hasn't there ever been a really successful female driver in NASCAR? While I can't speculate on the lack of successful female drivers in NASCAR's top levels, I can break down some numbers.

In 1949, NASCAR's inaugural season, three women started Cup series races, highlighted by Sara Christian, who finished fifth in a race at Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh.

Up until earlier this season, Christian was the only woman to finish in the top five in a race in any of the NASCAR National Touring Series, which include the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks series. That is, until Patrick finished fourth in a Nationwide race at Las Vegas earlier this season.

In 1950, another three female drivers started Cup races, meaning we had six women in NASCAR's first two Cup seasons. Since 1950, only nine others have started Cup races, and only one since 1990, that being Shawna Robinson, who made eight starts from 2001-02.

The most successful female driver in NASCAR history is Janet Guthrie, who made 33 Cup starts from 1976-80. She had five top-10 finishes, with a best finish of sixth at Bristol in 1977.

Other than Guthrie, no other woman has made more than 11 starts in the Cup series. Plus, there has been only a total of 13 Cup starts from three drivers in the 31 seasons since Guthrie's final start. That's the eight from Robinson, five from Patty Moise and two by Robin McCall.

Despite Patrick's brief Nationwide career, only 19 races deep heading to Montreal this weekend, she already has the fourth-most starts of any female driver in Nationwide Series history.

Patrick's three top-10 finishes in her 19 Nationwide Series starts already rank as the second most by a woman in series history, trailing only Moise's four, which came over 133 races.

The lack of women in NASCAR is somewhat of a surprise, seeing as in the other major racing series in the United States, the Izod IndyCar Series, there are several full-time female drivers.

In the marquee IndyCar Series race of the season, the Indianapolis 500, there have been at least three women in the field in each of the past five seasons, with promising drivers such as Simona de Silvestro in the mix.

So love or hate Danica Patrick, or if you're anywhere in between, her moving full time to NASCAR could open some long-closed doors for female drivers in the sport.

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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