Danica Patrick's career in NASCAR: What really happened?

Danica Patrick had seven top-10s, and no wins, in 190 career starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For anyone who thought Danica Patrick would win races in NASCAR and finish better than 24th in the standings over five seasons, Patrick has a message:

She's flattered.

"What I came to [realize] in the end was I'm honored there was disappointment [from fans]," Patrick said as her final NASCAR race approaches Sunday with the 2018 Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). "I'm disappointed because it meant you expected more, and I did too, right?

"You saw me through my eyes. You saw the potential. You hoped for what I hoped for and believed it was possible."

But it didn't happen. What went wrong? Or did nothing go wrong? Was Danica Patrick among a long list of IndyCar drivers -- including past champions Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. -- who attempted to transition to NASCAR and failed to gain much traction? Or did something else stymie her efforts over the past seven years?


"I had 20 years on her when she started in a stock car," said 2014 NASCAR Cup champion Kevin Harvick, her teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past four seasons. "That is experience and the things that come with that. You are never going to make up that ground. As long as I am still racing, I am going to be 20 years ahead regardless."

With one win in an IndyCar race and a third-place finish in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 among her accomplishments, Patrick tried to make the transition to stock cars as smooth as possible, competing part-time in the Xfinity Series in 2010 and 2011 while also competing in a full IndyCar schedule. She then competed in the full Xfinity schedule -- she finished 10th in the standings, the highest for a female in that series -- in 2012 and raced select Cup events before heading to Cup full time in 2013.

She knew so little about stock cars that when her first crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., talked in their first test about the "yaw" of the car as it turned, she thought he was saying "y'all" and couldn't figure out what he meant.

"She had a great opportunity financially to come into NASCAR," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JR Motorsports. "There was a lot of money there. Anyone would have taken that opportunity, but it was more of a challenge than anyone could have accomplished. Not just a female."

"She is breaking barriers down, which I think puts her in a special category. She needs to be praised for what she's done and accomplished."
Fox Sports analyst Jeff Gordon on Danica Patrick's career in NASCAR

The biggest difference between an IndyCar and a stock car -- and there are plenty -- is most apparent when an IndyCar twitches because it often means a hard crash a few seconds later. A stock car, when driven by the stars of the sport, often twitches.

"If an IndyCar moves around in the back, you wreck," said Eury, who will be her crew chief for her final Daytona 500 on Sunday. "These things move around. You can hang them out. That was her biggest learning curve.

"Before she got here, she didn't wreck race cars. She didn't tear up any cars. She's tore up some stuff in Cup just from the simple fact of trying too hard or not of her own doing, somebody taking advantage of her because she's a girl and, 'Hey I ain't going to get beat by a girl.' Those are the kind of things that have plagued her."

Eury said when he would work with Patrick, he tried to make sure he had the car set up with certain aspects so she could handle it well. They had some success, winning an Xfinity pole at Daytona in 2012, a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas in 2011 and that top-10 finish in the standings.

"She didn't come into the sport to set a car up, she came to the sport to learn to drive it," Eury said.

Not all drivers are knowledgeable on setups. Those who can perform despite not having that knowledge don't have anything to sweat. Those who don't will find a toxic atmosphere.

Patrick, 35, had a roller-coaster ride in Cup. Driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick earned seven top-10s -- a record for a female in the NASCAR Cup Series -- but it took 190 career starts. She finished in the lead lap in 38 percent of her races.

"I don't think she was ever really comfortable running a loose car," said Stewart, co-owner of SHR. "That's just inherent of anybody that runs an IndyCar, because IndyCars, you're sitting so far forward in those cars that when they get loose, you don't normally save them.

"These cars just inherently in the last five years have gotten freer, freer and freer."

Patrick sat on the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, the only such accomplishment for a female in NASCAR history, which spans 2,534 Cup races. Her eighth-place finish in that event marks the best finish for a female in NASCAR's biggest race.

"They just didn't understand what she needed out of the car," said Juan Pablo Montoya, an Indy 500 champion and former Formula One winner who won two Cup road-course races in seven full NASCAR seasons at Ganassi. "For me, it was tough because it took me a couple of years to really get the hang of it, and then I did.

"And once I did, they started changing everybody [on the team] and then start changing people. And when you start changing people around you, then the new people, when things didn't work, they always want to cover their ass."


Patrick has insinuated that at times she didn't feel the full support of her team, saying as far back as September that "I don't think it's always constant" that she had people fighting for her. But that is natural at most teams when drivers struggle, and her teammates often outran her. Last year, Harvick and Kurt Busch made the playoffs and Clint Bowyer finished 18th in the standings while Patrick was 28th.

Obviously, SHR feels it did everything it could, and Stewart pointed to a disagreement between Patrick, him and SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli over whether to keep Tony Gibson as her crew chief late into her second season or to go to an engineer, which she was more used to on the IndyCar side. The team made the change.

"We gave her everything we gave everybody else on that team," Stewart said. "She was the one that didn't believe in [competition director] Zippy and me when we told her that Tony Gibson was the right crew chief for her, and she insisted on a different crew chief.

"I've kept that under my belt the whole time. Lately, I'm hearing that she keeps saying that the team didn't believe in her, which isn't right. We all believed in her. But the best crew chief that we had and the best pairing for her was the one she didn't want. She was her own worst enemy in that equation."

It certainly wouldn't go down in history as the first disagreement over who should crew chief a driver, and the results showed the two different crew chiefs she had after Gibson didn't make much of a difference as she continued to struggle behind her SHR teammates.

"I saw cars that were put on the race track just like everybody else's, and at our shop, all the cars are prepared and finished by the same people," Harvick said about whether Patrick had full support. "A lot of that goes back to input.

"You have to have the input to help build your team going forward, so some of those things fall short possibly from maybe not getting the input that the team needed to push the cars in a good direction."

Patrick readily would admit she couldn't give the input that it might take to go fast.

"We are all unique in our abilities and what we feel," Patrick said. "Having a car that is right for you is the most important. I think probably one of the things that hurts me in my lower experience level in stock cars is that I just don't always know what to ask for to either get to that point or make it like that more often.

"[There are] certain traits that the car needs to have that will make it consistent over a run or good from practice to the race."

Asked if given more time to develop whether she would get to that point, she said: "I have no idea. I feel like you get better as a driver every year. The slope [of improvement] slows down."

Eury feels given the right situation, she could be successful. But the former crew chief for Earnhardt Jr. also knows how things go in the sport when a high-profile driver struggles.

"[Blaming people], it's got no choice but to happen because it is a high-profile driver," Eury said. "It happened to me. If your driver is a high-profile driver, the fingers always are going to start getting pointed when things go bad.

"Never do you see people rally around somebody and say, 'This is how we're going to fix it, let's try to make it better.' It always turned into a finger-pointing deal."

Technical issues

Earnhardt said he believes Patrick coming into the sport when NASCAR started taking away downforce as part of its rules package probably hurt her.

"Anybody that gets out of an IndyCar and goes into a stock car is kind of crazy to begin with because they're completely different," Earnhardt said. "They just don't have anything similar about them. ... She came into the Xfinity Series and I was really surprised she did as well as she did in our JR Motorsports cars.

"They have more downforce, less power, and they were, for a lack of a better word to describe it, easier to drive. She showed in those cars, in my opinion, that she is a driver."

The difference in NASCAR was the quality of cars varied from team to team more than an IndyCar, Patrick said, where she felt they were more similar across the board.

Even how the stock cars reacted in practice was foreign to Patrick.

"The one thing about open-wheel to stock cars is open-wheel cars tend to stay very consistent throughout a run -- the last lap on track before the race in practice is the fastest," Patrick said. "The first lap here [is fastest].

"There's a lot of transitions that the car goes through in stock-car racing, so having more experience to know what those are, anticipate those, that always helps."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, now an analyst for Fox Sports, said Patrick has done great, especially when considering that Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar champion, had a sour NASCAR experience as he finished in the top-10 in two of 18 Xfinity races and never won in 10 Cup starts.

"Danica has been given as good of an opportunity as anybody has ever been given," Gordon said. "I've seen days where she's had amazing equipment."

Learning how to maneuver the bigger, heavier car, though, appeared to be a challenge.

"You actually lift on the straightaway in an IndyCar, and then you're full throttle through the corners -- that is 100 percent opposite, 180 degrees [different than] in a stock car where we're always lifting in the corners because our cars are so heavy and they're lacking downforce," said 2017 Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch, who finished sixth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.


The best open-wheel drivers who adjust to NASCAR often have dirt-track oval experience, where Gordon said drivers learn how to search the track for the best racing line during an event.

"The dirt-track racing experience I had taught me to search lines, to approach the corner different when I am behind somebody, to try to find a way to get by them, and that's what you have to have, especially on the short tracks in NASCAR," Gordon said.

"That's where I saw that she struggled. She could have a fast car, make fast laps, get up to somebody and have difficulty getting by them. And if you have difficulty getting by them, it sort of breaks your momentum and stops you in your tracks. I saw that as a fairly consistent thing with her."

Gordon did say that once a team loses confidence in a driver, it is difficult to get it back.

"There's no doubt that I think people lost confidence in her," he said. "I'd be curious if she lost confidence in herself."

Did she?

"Oh god, I've came and went with confidence my entire career since I was a go-kart driver," Patrick said. "That's just human nature, to have doubt, to question.

"But I'm also very coachable. For me, I always tell people let me know what I need to do different. I'm the easiest thing to fix. Just tell me."

Along with peaks and valleys in the confidence in her, Patrick said the challenges included staying mentally strong throughout a 36-race schedule. A NASCAR season typically had two or three weekends off with 38 races during a nine-month stretch, while the IndyCar schedule had 17 races over six months.

"The relentlessness of the schedule really makes you have to get your attitude and your mind right," she said. "You can't let one weekend bleed into the next if it's a bad weekend.

"That's probably the other side of the competition that I had to get used to early on. I let that carry on from weekend to weekend. I had to learn real fast that was not going to be productive."

While she hasn't achieved the success she had wanted, many view her time in NASCAR as a successful venture.

"She is breaking barriers down, which I think puts her in a special category," Gordon said. "She needs to be praised for what she's done and accomplished.

"She's a very spirited competitor, and so she doesn't look at it that way. She wants to be looked upon as any other competitor."