DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Danica Patrick walks out of her motorhome in the Daytona International Speedway driver lot for another media interview as she embarks on her 26th season of racing.
At age 34, she has a resume that many would relish: Seven seasons with one win in one of the top open-wheel series in the world, the first woman ever to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500 and the highest-finishing woman in the Indianapolis 500 (third) and Daytona 500 (eighth).
She knows that season 25 didn’t go as expected, when her fourth full-time season on the NASCAR Cup circuit didn’t show much progression and the performance appeared to regress.
So why is Patrick even here, preparing for the 2017 Daytona 500, putting herself through the stress and the continuous questions about her performance? She has enough money. She has had the fame. What’s the point? No top-10s in 2016 and no top-5s in 154 career starts with Stewart-Haas Racing doesn’t exactly guarantee wins and trophies sit around the corner.
“I believe in myself,” Patrick said. “And I don’t want to let myself down. I don’t want to let accomplishments slip away because I got defeated and gave up or stopped trying hard enough to have great races.
“I believe in myself and I believe it would be a waste if I just gave up. You have to dig deeper. I think … a characteristic of someone [who] is successful is that when they get knocked down, they keep getting up.”
Coming off a year during which she averaged starting 25th (her worst qualifying average in three years) and averaged finishing 22nd, Patrick said she can envision herself running in the top 15 and contending for the NASCAR playoffs.
“That’s totally possible — that might happen right off the bat this year,” she said and then, after a short pause and possibly sensing some doubt coming from the reporter, added with emphasis. “It might.”
In some ways, it would appear that Patrick needs to get to that point this year or she won’t get another shot. Her primary sponsor, Nature’s Bakery, has terminated its deal with SHR, a deal originally set to run through 2018.
SHR has worked to piece together sponsorship for Patrick, and at least half this season is sponsored. Patrick said the situation doesn’t put pressure on her that she needs to do more this year or it could be her last. She flatly said “no” when asked if she felt she had to run top-20 this year to continue competing in NASCAR.
“It’s certainly not fun,” Patrick said about not running well. “I have definitely done well enough in my career, somewhat result-wise, but definitely financially that I don’t’ have to do anything that makes me miserable and doesn’t make me happy.”
She has the one thing she needs to get off the bus and go race.
“I am sure that almost everyone in the garage can say that almost every year you come back because you find a way to have some hope — whether it’s Jimmie Johnson going ‘OK we’re going to get eight [titles]’ or whether it’s me going, ‘I just want to run in the top 15 and be on the lead lap every single weekend.’
“There’s hope. There’s reasons why you can say it’s going to be the year and it keeps you coming back.”
That hope has to mix with confidence. She is routinely outrun by teammates — granted, teammates with decades of stock-car racing who rank among the best in NASCAR — but that shows the cars have potential. Patrick responded “of course” when asked if she wonders how much of the problem is her. Other IndyCar drivers who have made the transition have faced similar struggles.
“I am human,” Patrick said. “I think that all the time. But I always know, too, that one important part of my job is staying confident. Without that, it can matter less how good the car is. I know that it is important to stay confident.
“I also know that I have accomplished a lot of various things in my career. Then I look at a situation like why was I running better and finishing better and qualifying better a couple of years ago. Am I a worse driver today than I was a couple of years ago in NASCAR? No I don’t think so, especially because I’m so new to stock cars in general.”
Progress for Patrick can be measured in a variety of ways. She sees improvement in how she handles situations and how she prepares. She has spent time with the team in the offseason taking them to lunch and meeting with them more to show her commitment. She has posed the question: “What are we going to do different because if we’re going to do the same thing, we can only expect the same results?”
She understands that part of the answer is if they had known what to do, they would have already done it. She understands that she plays a significant role.
“My progression is being more prepared for more scenarios and making less mistakes — making the most of the race when it’s frustrating and not letting emotion get the best of you,” she said. “At times, it went better probably than it would have been in the past just because there was more maturity.
“That’s not to say the car was better than it used to be. It’s pretty clear in NASCAR and stock-car racing, you see a lot of very good drivers go up and down. There are so many moving parts. Yes, you are a big part of it but the car is a humongous part of it.”
Patrick said she won’t fret over losing the Nature’s Bakery sponsorship nor the pending legal battle as SHR has sued the company, which plans to countersue and has accused Patrick of promoting competing products. She can handle a little controversy.
“There’s always ups and downs to everything,” Patrick said. “You just have to roll with the flow and do your very best. It’s something to deal with but I think as the driver, I’m always given that permission to focus on what it is that I’m doing and don’t have to worry as much about the other stuff.
“The older I get, the better I am at [doing] that. You realize that sometimes things are for the best and you realize that sometimes there’s nothing you can do and a lot of times it’s just wasted energy.”
Patrick feels she knows where and when to focus her energy. She doesn’t want anyone to think that just because she has started her Warrior by Danica Patrick clothing line in the offseason or appears more involved in activities outside of racing, that she has had enough of NASCAR and will give up on the learning curve in NASCAR.
She doesn’t sound like a driver who wants to stop racing. She has hope for 2017.
“The other things I have going on are definitely less stressful but it also is because they aren’t my primary job,” Patrick said. “This is the start of my 26th year of racing.
“You put your body on the line. You put your heart on the line. You put your energy on the line every single day. … At no point in time whether I thought I had 10 years left or one year left would I change my effort level. If there was an opportunity to do more, then I’d just do it. It’s my job.”