She’s fully vested. Danica Patrick turn to NASCAR In making her 115th Sprint Cup start this weekend at Martinsville Speedway came at a greeting time, the 33-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver will equal in four seasons the entirety of her seven-year Indy Car career.
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Adjust your wikis and biography material accordingly: Danica Patrick is no longer an open wheel driver making a mid-career shift to NASCAR.
“It just shows how much more racing there is in NASCAR,” Patrick told USA TODAY Sports. “I think NASCAR could probably do with a few less races and I think IndyCar could probably do with a few more. For us, I think five less our way and five more the other way probably would be about the right amount of races for each.”
For Patrick, the change to stock cars came at a welcome time.
The death of driver Justin Wilson in August after being struck in the head by a piece of debris at Pocono, and a serious injury sustained by James Hinchcliffe after his car was pierced by a suspension piece at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May underscored the danger still inherent to IndyCar racing, and for Patrick, how fortunate she was to leave the sport so healthy. Her most serious injury was bruising after crashing in her first IndyCar race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2005.
“I got knocked out, probably, for a second,” Patrick said. “I got out of the car, and I don’t remember anything, and I stumbled around, and I don’t really remember …. I kept repeating myself in the car ride to the hospital, and I had a lot of bruising and a lot of bumps and bangs around my body, but other than that, I got very fortunate. I did not hit the wall at Indy at any point in all my laps there. Big tracks, fast tracks like that I got pretty lucky. Everything from that to when Dan (Wheldon) and Dario (Franchitti) flipped down the back straight at Michigan (in 2007) and got airborne. I mean, I was right behind that. I was third and I watched Dario go over the top of me, so I mean, I got very fortunate from a safety perspective in IndyCars.”
Franchitti, a three-time Indianapolis 500-winner and four-time series champion, was forced to retire in 2013 as a result of injuries incurred at a street course race in Houston. Paul Dana, Patrick’s teammate at then-Rahal Letterman Racing, was killed in a crash in a warm-up session before the Homestead event in 2006. Wheldon, a former series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500-winner, perished in Patrick’s last series start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011.
“I felt so much pressure about the very last race in Vegas,” Patrick said. “Oval racing got a lot less safe because there was a lot more drivers that either didn’t care or didn’t get it and ones without as much experience and European drivers and road course drivers and it just made it much more messy.
“It went from being able to go three-wide no problem, with a little bit of movement, but by no means did you feel like you were going to crash to, like, if you have any sort of conscience or intelligence for what can happen with tires coming together in an IndyCar, you were like, ‘This is stupid.’”
Patrick said that phenomenon — still bemoaned by current IndyCar drivers at high-speed ovals — shrouded her final race in the series. Then IndyCar head Randy Bernard had offered a $5-million purse to a non-series regular who could win after starting from the rear of the field and Wheldon, racing a partial schedule as he prepared to replace Patrick at Andretti Autosport in 2012, was the only taker and allowed to split the bounty with a randomly chose fan. A larger-than-usual field and speed-producing track characteristics heightened risk made worse by driver behavior, Patrick said.
“Drivers were very uncalculated. I was really nervous,” she said. “I don’t really get nervous like that before a race. Part of it was probably the last race I was doing. The other part was I knew if I was going to do well, I was going to have to take risks that I knew were not smart. And before the race, my dad was like, ‘Look, you’ve got nothing to prove. Drive like you drive.’ And he didn’t even know this was in my head.
“And then, Lap 11 crossing the line, can’t even remember who it was — probably could if I thought hard — cut in front of me down the front straight. Went down into (Turn) 1 and that’s when the big accident happened and it killed Dan. And the car that cut in front of me got collected and I didn’t. And in my head I was like, ‘I know I should lift. I know he’s not going to think twice and so we’re going to do this.’ I know that’s stupid. Unfortunately, while Justin’s accident was definitely much more of a freak incident, there’s a lot of things about oval racing that’s not how it used to be when I first got into the series with drivers that were used to driving on the ovals. And probably the European mentality of blocking, cutting, swerving, you know, lack of respect kind of driving is what it felt like.”
In NASCAR for the long haul, Patrick finalized her push into the next phase of her career on Friday with the announcement that her 2016 sponsor plank is complete with TaxAct extending its contract with agreement to three seasons and serving as primary sponsor in four races yearly beginning in 2016. Long-time benefactor GoDaddy’s decision to discontinue its sponsorship of Patrick left the driver seeking funding in a contract year, but she acquired new multi-year sponsor Nature’s Bakery (28 races) and saw Aspen Dental expands its role (four races) as replacements. She re-signed with SHR in August.