Who would have predicted that Danica Patrick would finish ahead of her three-time champion teammate in her first full season of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing this year? Then again, all it took was Tony Stewart missing the final 15 races of 2013 after breaking his leg in a Sprint Car accident in August.
The reality is that few expected Patrick to perform at anywhere close to Stewart's level. Even though she did manage to amass more points than the injured Stewart, the three-time champion was on the sidelines for 13 starts before she caught and passed him in the standings. Patrick finally overtook Stewart in Texas following the 34th of 36 races in 2013. He started his recovery after the 21st race in Pocono.
In the end, Patrick finished her rookie Sprint Cup year 27th overall in points, with one top-10 and one pole to her name. Both of those successes happened in the season opener in Daytona, and things went downhill from there. On most weekends, Patrick struggled to stay in the top-20 and put up an average result of 26th place in her 36 starts.
Now, many would rightfully argue that comparing the rookie against a three-time Cup champion is not fair. True, Patrick's numbers against the rest of the field don't stack up well either.
Of the drivers who started all 36 Cup races in 2013, Patrick finished ahead of only three: Travis Kvapil and David Ragan of BK Racing, and Front Row Motorsport's David Reutimann. Those two teams aren't exactly top outfits, scoring one just win and nine top-10 finishes in 629 combined Cup starts. Patrick also finished behind drivers Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin, who started 32 and 28 races respectively. Patrick's Stewart-Haas team gets top equipment from the powerhouse Hendrick operation, which means she had a car advantage over most in the field.
As outsiders talked disappointment on the track, her Stewart-Haas outfit continued to insist throughout the season that Patrick was exactly where it expected her to be in the development process.
Now, it's unlikely that a team would trash its driver – especially one who has the marketing ability to draw huge money sponsorship to the outfit – but it's difficult to believe that Stewart-Haas was pleased with one of its cars running at the back while the other two were a threat to win on most days.
Despite her struggles on track, the media darling's maiden Cup season saw her exceed expectations off the asphalt.
There's no doubt that Patrick raised NASCAR's profile after several years of declining TV numbers and lowered attendance. Her arrival was a welcome tonic to the series as she grabbed headlines early by capturing pole for the Daytona 500, which boosted interest in NASCAR among casual fans. When she ran near the front for most of "The Great American Race" and finished a strong eighth, you could almost hear excited squeals from NASCAR's headquarters.
But the early sizzle that had many anticipating a stellar rookie campaign quickly turned to fizzle, and Patrick spent the rest of the 2013 season buried somewhere in the back of the field.
As the season wore on, it became apparent that Patrick's move to Cup after only a single year of NASCAR second-tier Nationwide Series seasoning was premature. In fact, she actually put up worse numbers as the season progressed, taking an average finish of 25th and scoring four top-15s in the first half, and then not getting another in the next 18 starts where she put up an average result of 27th.
The second-half fade should be seen as strong evidence that Patrick would have benefited greatly from another year in Nationwide.
When her first Cup campaign ended earlier this month, it marked her 106th NASCAR race in Cup and the second-tier Nationwide Series without a win. The closest she ever came was a fourth-place finish in Las Vegas in a 2011 Nationwide race. Add that to her seven seasons and 115 starts in IndyCar with a grand total of one win and seven podiums, and a pattern emerges.
Fans hoping to see Patrick move to the front and consistently fight for top-10s and wins will likely be disappointed next year. The stark reality may be that the rush to get her into to Cup before she was ready may mean that she will never find huge success in NASCAR's top tier.
But none of the on-track stuff matters much an it's unlikely Patrick will be in any jeopardy of losing her ride anytime soon.
There has also been much talk about her GoDaddy.com backer pulling out of motorsport altogether once its deal with the 31-year-old from Roscoe, Il., runs out at the end of 2014. The pair has been together since the 2009 IndyCar season.
The Internet services company walked away from IndyCar's most marketable driver, Oakville, Ont.'s James Hinchcliffe, after the 2013 season citing a change in its business model and a need to look at other sponsorships that fit more with the new direction. Hinchcliffe's three wins in IndyCar this year, their first victories in that series, wasn't enough to keep GoDaddy.com supporting the Andretti Autosport driver.
It's not a stretch to think that GoDaddy.com sees NASCAR in the same light as IndyCar: A sport that won't support its new small business Internet services model. But like Hinchcliffe, should GoDaddy.com decide to call it quits, it's almost a certainty that Patrick will quickly attract another sponsor and not skip a beat.
Whether she will use that new opportunity to develop into a winner in NASCAR is anybody's guess. Right now, it's not looking like that will happen any time soon.
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