Patrick looks for natural way to win

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- Danica Patrick and the founders of Nature's Bakery spoke Tuesday about how their brands align perfectly.

Patrick, the health foodie, can get on board pitching fig bars. Nature's Bakery, a company whose products are mostly sold in Walmart and through online retailers, has gotten on board with someone who can authentically boost its brand awareness.

But the similarities go beyond a yoga photo on Twitter or a favorite Patrick fig recipe. Patrick still is relatively young in her stock-car career, starting the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR in 2010, the same year Dave Marson and son Sam began to put their fig-bar dream into action.

Both still seek, in some ways, to play with the big boys. Patrick has averaged a 22nd-place finish this year. Nature's Bakery in 2014 projected $100 million in revenues and now is playing in a primary sponsor field of Fortune 500 companies that have revenues at least 10 times that amount.

They hope to grow together. Their paths remain uncertain. The family-owned Nature's Bakery has enjoyed exploding growth in performance, while many will question Patrick's potential and ability to fill a seat at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The deal, at least three years, could be Patrick's last if she doesn't improve. She calls her career trajectory an "open book" but doesn't have a set number of years she plans to continue racing.

"I need to show significant improvement over time for myself," Patrick said after the announcement Tuesday. "I don't enjoy running 25th. That's not fun. What's fun is improving. So as long as that's what I'm doing, I need that for me.

"And I'm sure the team wants to see that as well. ... I want to have fun doing what I'm doing. I've been successful enough from many different aspects of my career that I don't have to put myself in a miserable situation if I don't want to."

Patrick wouldn't say if she took a pay cut. But it's hard to believe that a company such as Nature's Bakery could pay as much as GoDaddy, which will keep Patrick on a personal services deal. GoDaddy is a company that had $1.39 billion in revenues last year. Haas Automation also has cracked $1 billion in revenues.

Other sponsors at SHR are in similar or even bigger territory -- Jimmy John's at $1.86 billion in revenue, Bass Pro Shops (according to Forbes) at $4.2 billion. InBev (Budweiser's parent company) pulled in $47.1 billion, ExxonMobil $364 billion.

And then there's Nature's Bakery. You won't find it on the Forbes 500 list.

"We're extremely fast-growing," Sam Marson said. "We already had huge projections. Bringing this on is just going to amplify that. ... We're bigger than a lot of people think we are.

"I'm not going into [revenue] numbers."

Nature's Bakery already had a relationship with Haas Automation. Making fig bars requires specific machinery, and the Marsons purchase that machinery from Haas to create the equipment they need.

If Ryan Newman's past deal with the U.S. Army gives any indication of what a race team can get, SHR was taking in $493,333 a race from the Army for 15 races in 2011, and that works out to $13-14 million for 28 races. Although with it currently being a buyers' market, it wouldn't be surprising if this deal was much lower.

"I look at it from a Gene Haas perspective -- people are saying the same thing to him jumping into Formula One that he's only a billion-dollar-a-year company and he's going to compete against [companies that do] 23 billion," Marson said. "It's the same thing on a larger scale that we're doing.

"He's a very smart businessman. He, like us, is taking calculated risk."

It seems as if it would take an awful lot of fig bars to make up that amount. But food with healthier ingredients being all the rage, Nature's Bakery has a niche.

Patrick has always been good at pitching product. That's why she has personal services deals with several companies, including still with GoDaddy and Tissot. But the NASCAR fan base questions her ability. Some view her as using her femininity and not her driving ability to land sponsorship.

Patrick, 33, has made no apologies for using her femininity to land sponsors to pursue her passion. She feels her performance has improved enough to warrant a contract extension.

"I wasn't worried about that so much," Patrick said about the possibility of having to sit on the sidelines without sponsorship. "It's just difficult to find a big sponsor these days. You see it across the board in NASCAR -- for one sponsor to take on the vast majority of the season is not super common.

"To find that partner that was going to be able to come in and do that as the partners involved [with me] were not ready to step up into that level, that is a tough spot to fill."

Her boss, three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, adamantly supports her. Sure, Stewart could be putting on an act because it helps him to have additional employees, and Patrick can attract sponsorship. But he truly appears to enjoy having Patrick as a teammate, and she asks so many questions in debriefs that Stewart believes she is totally engaged and dedicated to the craft.

"I believe in her as a race car driver," Stewart said. "That's first and foremost why we hired her to begin with. I saw that potential when she was in IndyCar, and I still see it in NASCAR. ... I still believe in that. I still feel like she's on the right track."

But what would make hiring Patrick a success? Does she need to be a Chase contender? A championship contender?

"The big thing and the big picture is to keep continuing the progression she is on and the learning process she is going through," Stewart said. "I know we all have goals at the start of the season and we change them as the year goes on. Realistically, if she continues to keep growing at the pace she has been, I think she will be just fine."

When asked why Patrick has been so inconsistent, showing flashes of winning potential one week and then struggling the next, Stewart was self-reflective.

"Why is somebody that has won three championships can't hardly get out of the top 20?" said Stewart, referring to his own frustrating season.

Patrick says her goal continues to be to win races. Some would scoff at Patrick talking about winning races considering she has never had a top-five in NASCAR.

Patrick already has a win this year in getting the Nature's Bakery deal done. Over the past six to eight weeks, Patrick and Nature's Bakery have gone from a quick flirtation to a contract. She had faith that a deal would work out, just as when she first went to IndyCar more than a decade ago.

But she would never have imagined she would end up with a company such as Nature's Bakery. As little as eight weeks ago, Nature's Bakery officials couldn't have really thought they would sponsor a car.

"There's something to be said for a company as young and as new and as unique in the sport to come in and be thinking big and committing on this kind of a level -- [it] is pretty admirable," Patrick said. "I appreciate the boldness, and I will do everything I can to make sure that this works for them."