IN MY OPINION

NASCAR: Danica Patrick believes better races are ahead

Charlotte Race Weeks | All-Star Race, 9 p.m. Saturday (Fox Sports 1)

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comMay 16, 2014 

— On a restart at Kansas Speedway last week Danica Patrick swings outside and passes Jimmie Johnson. Who passes Jimmie Johnson? Who passes Jimmie Johnson on the outside?

“I spent a lap thinking about it, or maybe half a lap, or maybe the straightaway coming out of (turn) four,” Patrick says Friday in a hallway at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“When I cleared him and saw him dropping back I was like, ‘That was awesome.’ Then it was like, ‘Now I have to go back to what’s in front of me.’ But that was pretty cool,” she added.

What’s cool about Patrick is she doesn’t try to act cool. Obviously she tries to look cool. That’s her image and part of her appeal to advertisers and fans.

Yet at the age of 32, she’s willing to sound like a kid, or a fan. Thus, passing Johnson is awesome. Who else admits that?

Patrick has detractors. Her commercials far outnumber her top 10 finishes. She is one of the sport’s most popular drivers. Yet when you go to NASCAR.com to check the Sprint Cup standings you have to hit SHOW MORE because only the top 25 drivers make the list. She’s 27th.

But do you blame Patrick for her celebrity? Isn’t NASCAR in part about appeal? Isn’t the transition she’s making from open wheel to stock cars, which is tantamount to learning a new language, difficult for all but a few?

If you want a driver with more fans than victories I offer Josh Wise. Who is Josh Wise? He’s the guy I heard of for the first time Friday night when fans voted him, and not Patrick, into Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race.

Wise’s sponsor is Dogecoin/Reddit.com. The sponsor was aggressive and his fans were, too, getting on the Internet and voting early and often and late, too. Appeal to young computer savvy fans counts, too.

“To beat Danica that’s something,” says Clint Bowyer after the vote is announced.

Failing to win the fan vote might be good for Patrick’s image. But last weekend was better. On Saturday she finished seventh at Kansas Speedway. On Mother’s Day, her family grew by one.

“It was a pretty magical weekend,” she says.

Patrick and her boyfriend, driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., decided to get a dog. He wanted a big dog. She wanted a small dog. They settled on a small version of a big dog, a miniature Siberian husky.

There are three breeders of the dog in the U.S. and one of them is in Asheville. They picked up Dallas the dog Sunday. Stenhouse likes Texas. Patrick likes the name.

Patrick doesn’t pull out pictures of Dallas. She Tweets them.

“It’s like having a baby, like waking up every couple hours and, you know, cleaning up messes all the time,” she gushes. “But it’s really fun and she’s super sweet and it’s fun to see her learn things and she learns them so quickly and she learned sit with four little treats one afternoon.”

About Kansas: Patrick drove as if she belonged. She finished seventh, her best in her two full seasons in Sprint Cup.

She doesn’t pretend Jimmie Johnson should now act as if it’s awesome to pass her. She doesn’t pretend she’s arrived.

“I think we have to … make sure we don’t just expect to go out there and run in the top five or top ten every time now,” Patrick says. “We have to remember there is a process to it and we skipped over top 15s and went straight to top 10s. Shoot, we pretty much skipped over the top 20s and didn’t have many of those, either. We have to keep improving and have to keep getting in the thick of the good drivers and move up like that.”

How far will she move up? Will she be, say, Martin Truex Jr. or Paul Menard? Will she be decent or OK or will she contend for a place in the Chase?

“For me, having good races is so much more of a relief because I expect them to happen,” Patrick says. “And I believe they can.”

 

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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