|Danica Patrick knows what side her bread is buttered on now – the NASCAR side|
Danica Patrick didn't make her decision on racing full time in NASCAR until this season. The seed was planted much earlier: In her stock-car debut at Daytona International Speedway in February 2010, Patrick rebounded from a spin and soldiered to a sixth in an ARCA race.
"I had so much fun, I still get excited about it," she says. "It was the first time I got to bump and bang, and it was like, 'This is fantastic. I'm bumping. Yeah! This is really fun.'
"I guess I kind of knew then it's what I wanted to do."
She still spent the rest of 2010 vacillating over whether IndyCar or NASCAR was her future.
"Every time I went to the track, whether NASCAR or IndyCar, that's where I wanted to be," she said. "I'd go to IndyCar and say, 'I've been here so long, and it was a good weekend. This is what I know.' Then I'd go to NASCAR and say, 'God, that was so fun. I love the people, the racing was great.' I spent the whole year flip-flopping and thinking, 'Am I really ready for a change?'
"This year I knew, though. Because I started to do better."
She set a record for the best finish by a woman in an NASCAR national series and has six top-20 finishes in eight starts this year after none in her first 12 races. Next year, she will race full time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports and run a part-time Sprint Cup schedule with Stewart-Haas Racing that could become a full-time ride in NASCAR's premier series in 2013.
Patrick, who has three more Izod IndyCar Series races remaining, spoke with USA TODAY about her career path before last Friday's Nationwide race at Richmond International Raceway.
Q: Have things slowed down at all since the announcement?
A: No, because the commitments, schedule and sponsor appearances don't change. It gets more busy, because you get more popular, and the more popular you are, it actually gets more busy. They're like, 'Yeah, let's use her, she's hot right now. Let's do a shoot!'
Q: Is it a relief not to hear the same questions anymore about what you're doing next year?
A: Yeah, from a legal negotiation perspective, it's been a long road because there was only so much I could say. That'll be nice to be done with all that. It'll be nice to change the questions. I'm sure you're damn relieved as many other journalists are. You probably get sick of asking the same questions I would imagine. But God forbid, you don't ask the question one time, and that's the time I'm willing to answer it. So I feel very guilty because I continued to give the same boring answer. But I really couldn't do anything else. So as legally soon as I could, I did.
There definitely was a perspective of, 'Do you wait until the end of the IndyCar season?' Because staying in IndyCar obviously isn't going to be the news. So do you do that because you want to keep everyone working hard for you? Quite honestly, it got to be so much. There was so much speculation and so much news out, it was just time, and it had to happen. I love my IndyCar guys. They're great guys, and I get along with them very well. Hopefully, it gives them more time to pressure the team for answers or find other opportunities. But hopefully it works out from a positive perspective.
Q: So you didn't want to overshadow IndyCar with the wait, but you also didn't want it to be a distraction?
A: That's the other thing. If you wait until the last (IndyCar) race in Vegas, you overshadow the champion. Or you wait until Homestead, and you overshadow the NASCAR champion. I'm not saying my story is going to be the lead story necessarily, but you don't want to be in that position that people can hate you for something.
It's just better to get it out of the way, and it gives us more time to set up sponsors or opportunities for the future. It's just better.
Q: Was it becoming a distraction for you and all the teams involved?
A: Tony and I were talking, and I said, 'You're probably ready for this to be done.' He said, 'You know what, I like messing with them!' It was funny, and I told him I heard an interview that he had quite the smartass comment to someone's question about it. But I just feel bad the media had to keep asking the same damn questions and keep getting the same answers.
And I don't want fans to get resentful that they keep reading the same story about the same person. The story is the same. And then the fans resent me for all of that because you're not telling them anything new. Why are you in the news all the time? So I don't want the fans to resent me, either, for something out of my control.
I'm very fortunate it's a problem that could exist, trust me. But there definitely were some media stories that started turning fans in a negative way of, 'Oh, maybe we won't miss her.' So, it was better just to get it out there.
Q: Did your impending departure receive a good reception in IndyCar?
A: It did. Mario (Andretti) was very nice. Even Marco (Andretti) at Sonoma. He came in the truck and just looked at me and had this sad look. He gave me a hug and said, 'I'm going to miss you.' It was this very sincere, brotherly kind of thing. I've gotten along really well with Marco the last two years. So there has been a quiet procession of people who have come to myself or my husband saying they'll really miss that we'll be gone. So it's really meant a lot. It's been really nice.
When I first arrived at the track, and you see your guys and crew, they didn't know what to say. They were really quiet and didn't say much to me. But once we broke the ice about it, it was fine, and it's all the same now. They're great guys, and they're happy for me. They really are. There are some people who were like, 'Look, you need to do this. You should do this. We have no problems.' I'm lucky that I have good guys in IndyCar who are still working hard for me.
Q: Did it feel special to finish sixth at the Baltimore Grand Prix after some people said you would give up on the IndyCar season?
A: Yeah, because that's never the case. I will say I'm a little more detached from the results when they're not good because I'm moving on. But when you're out there working on the weekend, it's still the same drive as I've ever had. It's still my reputation. If I don't do well, it's only me that looks bad. Or it's me that's especially going to be judged for it. Especially with all the news surrounding me, it's easy to point in the direction of, 'You're not trying. You don't care.' It's very easy for people to do that, and it would seem even more my fault than ever before. So I can't let that happen.
Q: After seven seasons, will the end of your IndyCar career seem surreal?
A: The last two races are going to be fun in Kentucky and Vegas. And at this point, I'm really excited about moving on and really looking forward to it, so I don't know if it's like buying a new house that you're really excited about, and you're like, 'I don't care about this one anymore!' You're ready to move on, and there are things you'll miss about it, but you're ready to move on. Because I chose to do this. It's not like I was forced. It's not like it was a terrible compromise in some way.
This is what I want to do. If I loved absolutely everything about IndyCar, I wouldn't be leaving. There are things I'm not going to miss. I'm looking forward to it. I have a feeling the last race in Vegas might be a little bittersweet, though. Especially being on an oval, and that being the primary core of most of my success and my fun moments especially.
Q: So you have no buyer's remorse?
A: No, I'm excited about my new big house. It's got a bigger cockpit. It needs a good air-conditioner, though. I'm going to step up the A/C game in NASCAR, or I'm going to look like a wuss. I got some new packs that aren't as cold as ice, but they stay cold longer, so I'm going to try them out this weekend.
I saw Jimmie Johnson take something similar out after the race last weekend at Atlanta. I'm like, 'All right, I'm not a total wuss!' I don't want to be a wuss. But if 'Five-Time' does it, I can do it.
Q: So is the plan to start your Cup career at the Daytona 500?
A: Yeah, that would be a good idea because Tony thought it'd be a good idea to do some tough racetracks in Sprint Cup as part of my eight to 10 races. I need to learn, so you might as well cut your teeth. I would imagine it's going to be like Darlington, Bristol, Dover — all the hardest ones, because I'll need the most practice. I feel I'll get some slack in those first 10 races. People are going to be watching, but hopefully they cut me the same slack as they did in Nationwide. It's about the long term.
But it would be nice to start somewhere like Daytona so your Sprint Cup debut wasn't a disaster. It's a track where you can have a chance to have a good day. It'd be great from a fan perspective, too. It'd probably be a lot of work for Tony and them to get the cars ready, but I think it'd be good. But we haven't figured that out yet.
Q: How far along is Stewart-Haas Racing in assembling its part-time Cup team for you?
A: I don't know. It's going to start from the ground up. I'd think they're probably in the process of hiring people. But that's another good thing about announcing earlier is that they can start talking to people and put a good quality team together and start talking to people instead of just picking up who you can.
I know Tony's working on it. I don't know if anyone's been hired yet. I know they've started to put it together.
Q: What is the time frame for deciding if you still would race the Indianapolis 500 next year?
A: To be boring, I don't think I have to know anytime soon. I'd imagine when the NASCAR schedules come out, maybe it'll be part of where we decide where it's going to fit in it or not. I'm going to make that suggestion that when we announce the NASCAR schedule, we announce whether I'll be back for the 500 or not. USA Today