Danica Patrick's Make or Break Season

Wednesday, Feb 04 2246

There is no doubt about it, Danica Patrick has struggled in her first two full-time seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Throughout the struggles, there have been many critics, and rightfully so, as she races in NASCAR’s premier division. This upcoming season is one that could either make or break Patrick’s career.

She has had the backing from Go Daddy ever since 2010, when she raced in the IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport. Over that time she has become the face of Go Daddy, and they have gone with her wherever she decided to race.

However, 2015 is the last year on Patrick’s current contract with Stewart-Haas Racing. She is coming off of a season where she made abundant strides on the track. Her qualifying also improved tremendously, as six times she started inside of the top-10. During her rookie season, the driver of the No. 10 car had one start inside of the top-10, which was a bang---, her pole for the Daytona 500. In 2014, she also recorded three top-10 finishes with a season best of seventh place at Atlanta. But shouldn’t she do better?

 She races for Stewart-Haas Racing, who is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. The driver line-up between the two race teams includes five former champion; Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. It wouldn’t be fair comparing her to those names, but- she is in the same equipment that they have. She firmly believes that SHR is the place for her.

 “I think in my second year in the Cup Series, there were certain things that we wanted to work on as a group,” Patrick told an editor for Speedway Digest during the NASCAR Media Tour. “I feel like there was drastic improvement, even though the overall championship position didn’t show that. There was a lot of improvement in areas that we wanted to. I consider that a success. Moving forward with Daniel, it really opens up new possibilities. With a new person, there are new possibilities. There are new ways of getting things done. We are going to be working hard to put our best ideas together and stay positive.” 

SHR has the option of not renewing her contract after the upcoming season. And although Patrick has the sponsorship from Go Daddy, is that enough to outweigh the amount of cars that she has damaged in the last couple of years?

 Plus, SHR has a young phenom in Cole Custer, who is waiting at the helm. Custer can’t even race in the XFINITY Series, let alone the Sprint Cup Series yet because he is only 17 years old. Custer will get the opportunity to compete in 10 races for JR Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series during the 2015 season.

 One criticism for Patrick in her first two seasons is that she “crashes” too much. Although she had just two DNFs due to accidents in 2014, she experienced multiple on-track incidents, finishing on the lead lap only 19 times. She is the only one who can silence the critics when it comes to performance on the track.

What if SHR doesn’t renew her contract, where would she go? This is interesting because many of the so called “big” teams are out of space. Hendrick doesn’t have room for her. Neither does Joe Gibbs Racing. Team Penske is committed to two teams with, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, and they also have Ryan Blaney set to run full-time within the next year or two. It doesn’t make sense for her to go to Richard Childress Racing, as they are gearing up for Ty Dillon’s move to the Sprint Cup Series in 2016. She wouldn’t fit in with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates with multiple drivers in their development program. Richard Petty Motorsports is in sort of a re-building mode, so she wouldn’t do well there unless she has funding to align herself with the King. The only team that may consider her is Roush Fenway Racing, but that isn’t a definite with the amount of young stars they have in that organization. If she doesn’t return SHR could always go back to three full-time Sprint Cup teams, thus focusing the attention on Stewart, Harvick and Busch until Custer is eligible to race in NASCAR’s premiere division.

The best way for Patrick to secure a job in 2016, is to have a better year than she has the past two seasons with SHR. They have paired her with former engineer and Kurt Busch’s 2014 crew chief Daniel Knost. Pairing her with Knost may pay off as he will be able to understand her lingo that she used going back to her IndyCar days. 

SHR co-owner Gene Haas loves having Patrick as a part of SHR and would like to continue to stand behind her.

"We'd love to see Danica come back," Haas told NASCAR.com at the Media Tour. "She's a big draw, and we want to see Danica's success as much as anyone does. I think NASCAR wants to see her success. … We're very fortunate to have someone like Danica here."

She has 82 starts in her Sprint Cup Series career, and only four top-10 results. Her average finishes in those races is a mediocre 25.3 with an average start of 27.4. It will be crucial for these numbers to improve in 2015.

If Patrick wants to be back in NASCAR in 2016, 2015 will need to be her breakout season. Knost is a much better match up with his engineering background, whereas her former crew chief, Tony Gibson, is more of a hands-on worker.

"I can't guarantee anything," Patrick told NASCAR.com.” I have all the confidence that I need to do it. I definitely believe and know I can win."

Dustin Albino

Dustin is a 20-year-old, currently studying journalism at Ithaca College. Albino has always wanted to report on NASCAR and beginning at the end of 2014 that is exactly what he did with Speedway Digest. Since that time he has become well-known around the garage area and is looking to attend even more races than he did in 2015. 

Twitter: @DustinAlbino
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