As she walked into the media center at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, all the whispering stopped. The keyboard tapping, too. Everyone craned their necks and watched her climb the podium steps, sit down and speak into the microphone for what could be the final time.
Everyone wanted to hear what Danica Patrick had to say.
Patrick, 35, will run her final NASCAR Cup Series race next Sunday in the 60th Daytona 500. She will, barring a miraculous win in a worse car, end her career with no wins at NASCAR’s top level. The crowning achievement of her stock car career? It’s at this same track five years ago, when she won the pole for and finished eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500.
Now her five-year career (and change) is nearing its finale, and not necessarily in the way Patrick imagined. She said as much in a recently released Player’s Tribune essay.
“Truthfully,” Patrick wrote, “this isn’t how I envisioned the end of my career playing out.”
That’s an all-encompassing statement, one that throws a wide net. It touches on her loss of sponsorship, which cost her a full-time spot at Stewart-Haas Racing and essentially forced her from the sport. It touches on her relative lack of success at the Cup level, recording just seven Top-10 finishes in six years. It even touches on her overall decline since that pole five years ago – she hasn’t had one since. And yet, despite all that, Patrick’s departure from NASCAR will clearly leave a void.
She is not the first female NASCAR driver, but she is by far the most accomplished one. Her list of accolades range from the first woman to earn a full-time Cup ride to the first woman to race at every Cup track. No, she’s never won, but she has led laps, finished in the Top 10 multiple times, and proven herself a legitimate driver.
And all of that is partially what complicates her legacy. Patrick’s legacy, whether she likes it or not, will always be this: the best female NASCAR driver ever ... yet. There will be others who follow in her footsteps, and there will eventually be women who surpass her accomplishments. There will be women who make the playoffs. There will be women who win races.
One day, a woman might win the Cup Series championship.
But for as clear a part in that progression as Patrick has played, she is not eager to accept that as her legacy. She has stressed throughout her career that her priority has always been herself, not to carry the flag for women.
“If they remember me as a girl second, that’s the way I prefer it,” Patrick told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “I want people to say she was a great driver and she kicked butt.”
Saturday, her message remained the same.
“I’ve never felt like that,” Patrick said when asked if women in NASCAR face more pressure because of the expectations to represent an entire gender. “ My own banner is bigger than any other banner for what I want to accomplish for myself, and then the trickle-down effect is what it is.
“But no one expects more than me.”
Now, that isn’t to say Patrick doesn’t support women, because she absolutely does. She has raced a pink car to generate support for breast cancer, her new book stresses fitness and diet, and she has spoken at length about healthy body image.
Just because she supports women doesn’t mean she wants to solely be defined as a woman, though. Patrick is a competitor, so naturally she is foremost concerned about her results. That’s her right. But it doesn’t simplify her complicated legacy, one of a talented female driver more focused with her own success than trying to carry an entire gender on her shoulders.
Up-and-coming female drivers, like ARCA drivers Natalie Decker and Leilani Munter, credit Patrick as an inspiration and a trailblazer. Munter said, “Danica being out there has definitely planted the seed in the mind of a lot of little girls across the nation,” that they, too, can be NASCAR drivers.
That is likely true. What is also true is that Patrick’s legacy will not be complete until one of those drivers surpasses her feats. Maybe then she will let it soak in, all that she’s done to help women in a predominantly male sport.
Until then, her focus remains as it always has: racing her best on the track – even now for the last time.
“I really hope that I finish and that I’m hopefully in contention,” Patrick said of what she wants for her final NASCAR race. “That’s really my hope for the Daytona 500.”