CLEVELAND - Danica Patrick was in the mix as the white flag waved at the 2013 Daytona 500, lined up in third behind Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle.
Patrick didn’t make a move. Instead it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who dove down, leaving Danica boxed in and finishing eighth.
“I feel like I had a little bit of help today here and there. I felt like if I were to dive low, I had a feeling I was going to get freight-trained,” Patrick said in a post-race interview.
Candid statements there, essentially calling out the field. Patrick had no confidence in her fellow drivers - and maybe she was right.
But was it because she’s a woman?
Patrick is breaking new ground in the sport, the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole and highest finishing woman in the big race. She had a fast car throughout speedweeks and took a step in proving herself with this finish.
She still has a way to go though and it has nothing to with her gender.
NASCAR, especially at the plate tracks, is about trust, cars separated by inches going at speeds just shy of 200 MPH. The slightest slip from the car in front of you and your day (and that of many others) is done. You don’t want to get behind a driver you’re not certain about.
Trevor Bayne won the 2011 500 as a rookie but that’s an anomaly. The yellow stripe affixed to the back bumper of the first-year drivers’ cars has a meaning. It’s a big stamp that says ‘new driver, proceed at your own risk,’ a signal more obvious than a freshman on a college campus with lanyard tethering from neck.
Danica is a woman but she’s also a rookie, Sunday only her second Daytona 500.
Would Dale Jr. have joined Danica had she dove down to the bottom on that final lap? Who knows. He very well may not have but it’s all hypothetical.
Patrick obviously felt Junior or one of the many drivers behind him wouldn’t make that move, so she played it safe and got a good top 10 finish out of the day. It’s a split-second decision to make in that moment. Any driver could have taken that dive and risk being “freight-trained” to the back of the pack, as Patrick articulated she would have been.
Patrick’s race was historic and a definite building block, one that will rightfully make women proud.
Taking a dig at her competitors, however, is not the tone to strike in the race’s aftermath. At the end of the day, she’s blazing new ground in the sport but she’s still a rookie, just like Timmy Hill or her boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse.
After winning the Daytona pole, Patrick said, "I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl."
Next week at Phoenix will be a test in proving she belongs, on a track where you really have to drive your car. Doing well there will probably raise Danica’s credibility in the garage - and it will have nothing to do with her being a woman, but a racer, just as she wants it.
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