Danica Patrick just can’t win for losing.
The Stewart Haas Racing driver started her weekend at Sonoma Raceway is encouraging fashion; qualifying sixth for Sunday’s running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. But as soon as the green flag waved, Patrick’s luck turned sour.
Just 14 laps into the event, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun in Turn 11 and slid his Axalta-sponsored Chevrolet across the track, into the path of Patrick’s oncoming Ford.
"Wrong place, wrong time," explained Earnhardt afterward. "Danica was trying to protect her position, and I went even lower than we normally go. It's real slick down there, and I just locked up the rear tires. I'll take some of the responsibility, for sure."
Patrick sang a similar tune, saying Earnhardt, “kind of lost it.
“I went to the outside, and there were cars all slowing down ... and he spun across,” she said. “There was a lot of dive-bombing today… but there's a limit to the amount of grip and the amount of braking power that these cars have."
The impact damaged both machines, and crew chief Billy Scott called Patrick to pit road for repairs and fresh tires. The Code 3 Associates driver quickly worked her way forward from the back of the pack, however. climbing as high as 21st before a scheduled, green-flag pit stop on Lap 22 for tires and fuel.
Not long after the start of the race’s second stage, Patrick once again found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, Kyle Larson attempted a three-wide, banzai move that ended with a second round of contact with Earnhardt. Patrick went spinning into the path of boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who was left with nowhere to go.
"Tell Ricky I'm sorry," said a sheepish Patrick, after Stenhouse suffered sufficient damage to end his day.
“They were three-wide in front of us trying to go through Turn 4, which never works,” said an angry Stenhouse after a mandatory trip to the track’s Infield Care Center. “They were all dive-bombing each other and then (Danica) got spinning and I tried to go low. She just kept coming down the track. We just clipped it a little bit and tore the left front up too bad to continue.”
Patrick was able to continue, once again pitting for tires and repairs. She began the race’s final stage in 18th place, and ran as high as fourth as the field cycled through a series of green-flag pit stops. She dropped to 28th after a final pit stop on lap 80, before racing her battered Ford back through the pack to finish 17th at the drop of the checkered flag.
“It definitely wasn’t the day the Code 3 Associates team was expecting,” said Patrick of her pinball-esque afternoon. “But we were able to battle back to a decent finish. The car was just awful in the final laps of the last two runs, but we made the most of it at the end.
"It's just a lot of people dive-bombing” she added. “It's part of what makes road-course racing exciting in a stock car, because you don't climb wheels. You just bump fenders. It just wasn't the day we expected to have.
Someday, (our luck) it will go the other way.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s outing, Patrick now stands 28th in the championship standings. Her only shot at a 2017 playoff berth is to win a race in the next few weeks; an unlikely prospect considering that she is winless in 233 career stock car starts, and has recorded just one Top-10 finish – a 10th at Dover earlier this month – in her last 78 races.
When Patrick first came to NASCAR in 2010, fans and media stood 30-deep around her car and radio and TV clamored to interview her before and after every race. Sponsorship flowed like water, and Patrick ranked as one of the sport’s most recognizable drivers.
Since then, however, the hype has cooled. A half-decade or more of mid-pack finishes has made Patrick less relevant to the media and less attractive to sponsors these days, and the rumor mill is rife with speculation that she will not return to Stewart Haas Racing next season.
Patrick has openly admitted “not having fun” on the race track this season, adding that if her performances don’t improve, she may look for something else to do on Sunday afternoons.
“Every year I come into it with hope,” said Patrick earlier this season. “Now, that hope has kind of been crushed. We’ve been through enough races (that) it’s not going to be like a light switch. It’s time for some honesty. It’s time for some figuring out what the hell we’re doing because this is not helping anybody.”
“It doesn’t really help anybody if I’m out there running 25th. I’m not sure that does a lot for me.”
Patrick certainly isn’t in it for the money. She has been well compensated throughout her IndyCar and NASCAR careers, and recently published a health and fitness book, “Pretty Intense.” She launched her “Warrior by Danica Patrick” line of fitness apparel earlier this year to rave reviews, and admitted that if her on-track fortunes do not improve, there could be a team change – or even a career change – in her near future.
“It could mean either, to be honest,” she said. “If I could do better with a different team, then I would do it. I love racing. But I don’t love being miserable every weekend like I am now.
“The people around me probably aren’t that happy, either. None of us want to go out there and not run well. It’s a matter of being realistic about what’s going to be possible, what makes sense and where I’m going to be the most successful.”
With just 10 races remaining in the 2017 regular season – 10 more chances to regain her on-track relevance – Danica Patrick stands at a career crossroads. If her performance continues to flounder, 2017 will almost certainly mark her final season with a top-tier NASCAR team.
A little luck would certainly help change that outlook.