The words Danica Patrick uttered as she fought through tears were just the verbalization of what she has known for several weeks: her career as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series would conclude with Sunday’s race.
In fact, Patrick said in an interview with a small group of reporters Friday that there was a point this season that she thought she’d lose her ride with Stewart-Haas Racing well before the season finale.
“There was a moment at the beginning of the year where I wondered, ‘Is the team just going to shut me down?’ ” Patrick said. “Maybe? I don’t know. I had to pretty quickly face the music. What if this is the end? It’s been running through my head since January.”
The end, however, won’t come for two races as Patrick announced she would run the February’s season-opening Cup race (the Daytona 500) and the iconic IndyCar Series race over Memorial Day weekend (the Indianapolis 500).
“It’s a perfect full circle,” Patrick said.
“The Danica Double” came after discussions with her agent, Alan Zucker, that started first as finding just a ride for Daytona.
“What about Indy?” Patrick said she asked Zucker. “I was implying just (running) Indy.”
Patrick, 35, said running in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 race in the same year, is “kind of mine. It’s unique.”
It is also an opportunity for Patrick to control how her racing career concludes, one that, while impactful, hasn’t always led to the best on-track results in NASCAR.
“I think she was about to break through with Tony Gibson as the crew chief, but for whatever reason, the change got made,” Mark Dyer, Patrick’s former agent, told USA TODAY. “I am not criticizing any of the subsequent crew chiefs, but Tony’s last year they were really having a good year and making significant progress and never quite got it back.”
Her best career finish in six seasons — the last five as a full-time Cup driver — was sixth in Atlanta in 2014, the final year with Gibson atop the pit box. She is also the only female driver to win the pole in a Cup race, something she did at the 2013 Daytona 500.
“She would love to have gotten a win and made a chase (for the title), but I’ll be honest with you,” Dyer said. “I had some NASCAR car owners and upper-level executives with some NASCAR teams when I started shopping the idea of her coming to NASCAR who laughed in my face. Some told me she’d never complete a race. There was a lot of skepticism.”
Patrick’s struggles mirror several other open-wheel drivers who attempted the transition to stock cars, including Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Christian Fittipaldi. While Juan Pablo Montoya and current Cup driver A.J. Allmendinger have had success, the last driver to make the pivot and challenge for a title was Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup champ who also co-owns Patrick’s team.
Patrick remains the only female driver to win a top-tier open-wheel race, something she accomplished at an IndyCar race in Japan in 2008. She’s also the top-finishing female at the Indy 500 (third in 2009) and the first female driver to lead the race.
Patrick said the 2018 Indy 500 would be her last race in any series. Asked minutes after her original statement in a news conference if she could run somewhere competitively again, she shut down that idea.
“Never say never, but no,” Patrick said.
Instead, she will be spectator much of next season as she attends races with Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., her boyfriend.
“Not all the races,” Patrick quipped.
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