HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The NASCAR life is nearly over for Danica Patrick. The racing life too. But not without two legitimate opportunities to win.
That realization came months ago to Patrick, but that didn’t stop her from crying when she announced her decision Friday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway that she would attempt to qualify for the 2018 Daytona 500 and the 2018 Indianapolis 500 before retiring.
Why so sad? A driver who has had an accomplished career and can’t land sponsorship has opted to do the two races that she could conceivably win.
Granted, neither career has gone the way she would have scripted it. Her IndyCar career includes one win, in 2008, in Japan. Her NASCAR career hasn’t included a top-5 finish in 189 starts and no finish higher than 24th in the standings.
But just knowing it is near the end has made Patrick emotional.
“Have you ever just said the things that you don’t ever want to say out loud, the things that are really hard, the things that are sad, the things that are emotional?” she said after the news conference. “It’s hard to say things out loud, period.
“I was just emotional.”
Patrick’s third-place finish in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 and eighth-place finish in the 2013 Daytona 500 are the highest finishes for a female in both of those events. They are among the biggest days in Patrick’s racing career, and the potential remains for her to recapture that magic.
“The team matters [in the Daytona 500], but it also is a much more of a wide-open race as far as catching the breaks — you can be the fastest car out there and be changing lanes to defend the lead and get tagged,” Patrick said. “Anything can happen.
“At Indy, the cars are just a little bit more even across the board to some degree, it allows more flexibility with teams to go somewhere.”
Patrick said she believes the IndyCar cars — Chip Ganassi Racing is a possibility — have more downforce then when she last raced in 2012, and she certainly was cool with that as she returns after a five-year layoff. She believes she will be welcomed back in the IndyCar paddock.
“I would think it would be positive, but it’s also not a huge concern,” Patrick said. “I’m excited, and hopefully they’ll feel that and know how much I want to do it.”
The writing had been on the wall for several months that this would be Patrick’s fate. Once Nature’s Bakery decided it wouldn’t sponsor her this year, ending its three-year deal after just one season, she had limited sponsorship and not too many suitors. She formally announced in September that she wouldn’t be back at Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
She had talked with sponsor Aspen Dental about possibly continuing with another team, but nothing materialized.
“It’s not like this is just a conclusion I arrived at,” Patrick said. “I started thinking about all the situations that could come my way from January.
“There was a moment in the very beginning of the year right there, where it was like, ‘Is the team just going to shut me down? Maybe. I don’t know.’ I pretty quickly had to face the music of what if this is the end? It’s been running through my head since January.”
After five years in NASCAR, Patrick never found the groove week-to-week in stock cars, facing the common hurdles of drivers who have struggled in the transition from IndyCar to NASCAR.
Patrick, ever the competitor, doesn’t think she hit her ceiling in NASCAR. She said several drivers had changed teams and improved.
“Why have I had some good races?” she said. “There have been some good races, for sure. Did I forget how to drive the next week?
“I feel like in a different scenario, there is a possibility it could have been different.”
But she refused to look back and analyze her NASCAR career.
“Looking back causes frustration,” she said. “Looking forward causes anxiety. So you’ve just got to live in the present.”
That being said, she admitted she didn’t push all that hard to find a full-time ride in the present.
“Through the summer and just kind of how everything was moving, it was like I just wasn’t having a ton of fun,” Patrick said. “I wasn’t really pushing hard to figure the next thing out, unless an opportunity came up with a team really, really good and I got excited about it.”
When her agent, Alan Zucker, suggested she run the Daytona 500 as a way to cap her career instead of at Homestead, Patrick suggested she run the Indianapolis 500. Then Zucker suggested both. They toyed with the idea of doing both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day but scrapped that idea to make her “double” the biggest races in each series.
“I would be surprised if there’d be anyone across the board that they thought this was not a great way to do it,” Patrick said about her racing exit plans.
Maybe the biggest thing is that in addition to being excited, she actually smiles when talking about her 2018 plans.
“Anyone that has seen me talk about it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re lighting up, you’re excited,'” Patrick said. “I’m like, ‘I know! I’m really nervous, but I’m really excited.’
“It’s a perfect way. It definitely didn’t feel it should be over. … I had a lot of pressure on myself to answer whether I wanted to move on or not before I heard the answer.”