After all the hard shots Danica Patrick has weathered in her NASCAR career, the hits came as fast and furious for her passionate reaction to a fiery impact Saturday.
A Cup driver was being cut out of his car because of an injury concern (for the first time in more than a decade), and engines were silent at Kansas Speedway. A solemn interview on FS1 by Joey Logano indicated a pall had fallen over the track as safety workers carefully extricated Aric Almirola.
And then Patrick gave an interview that seemed borderline flippant in contrast to the preceding somberness.
Was it fair to criticize it as tone deaf, as many did the next few days on satellite radio and social media?
Let’s put aside the mood, the timing, the setting and just re-examine some of Patrick’s words while standing outside the care center on national TV for the second consecutive week.
“I hope Aric’s OK,” she said “He definitely is feeling the worst of everybody. NASCAR has done everything they can to make our cars as safe as possible, but things happen. And his car looked the least damaged of all of ours.
“That’s what I said before I walked out, one of these times these accidents aren’t going to go good for me. They are all big. I’ve been very fortunate so far, but one of these times it’s not going to go well.”
If it sounded like someone who was feeling the strain of being in too many crashes – particularly the sort of jarring impacts that naturally leave drivers questioning their vocations – that would be a reasonable conclusion.
Kansas marked the third crash in four weeks for Patrick, who has endured collisions in five of the first 11 races this season – the highest rate of a career already marked by its share of wrecks.
In 165 starts in NASCAR’s premier series, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been listed on the crash report in 51 races – 20 resulting in DNFs.
According to David Smith’s Motorsports Analytics website, Patrick was among the top 15 in crash rates from 2013-15 (last year, she was at 0.31 crashes per race, 19th highest in the series and the lowest of her career). Over the past three seasons, she has the third-most crashes (40).
This year’s crash rate of 0.45 is among the top 10, but it shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment of her ability.
She crashes slightly more than a typical Cup driver but not so much that it begs questions about her qualifications. The fiery wreck at Kansas (where she ran in the top 10) was because of a broken part on Joey Logano’s Ford, and Patrick had no say in the contact between A.J. Allmendinger and Chase Elliott that collected her car at Talladega Superspeedway.
What is troubling about Patrick’s crashes isn’t the frequency — it’s how heavy they frequently are.
A day after the Kansas wreck, a YouTube user assembled a dozen of Danica’s most jarring impacts, and the compilation easily filled nearly 10 minutes.
This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative for Patrick, whose cars have found walls at high rates of speed since even before the first race of her Cup career. This 2012 Daytona 500 qualifier now seems a harbinger of sorts:
A week before Kansas, there was this impact with a barrier jutting out at Talladega (around the 1:40 mark):
A year earlier at Talladega was a crash that left her shaken and with a foot injury:
There was a hard turn into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in 2016:
A wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2015 knocked the wind out of her:
There was a heavy right-front impact in the 2014 Daytona 500:
Even practice sessions have included some heavy licks, such as this during Speedweeks 2015 at Daytona:
When the crashes in her career are watched in succession, Patrick’s assertion three months ago that she has had at least a dozen concussions seems less like hyperbole and more just a fact.
If she could re-do Saturday’s interview, Patrick might choose her words differently. She admittedly is known for getting angry in the wake of crashes throughout her career in IndyCar and NASCAR. Adrenaline is pumping in the wake of traumatic moments such as slamming a wall at 200 mph, and drivers shouldn’t be asked to apologize if it occasionally results in histrionic reactions.
But beyond just being in the heat of the moment, consider what else Patrick might have been thinking about Saturday night as she attempted to process another high-speed collision that wasn’t her fault.
The primary sponsor of her No. 10 Ford has left and no replacement has been named for next year. She has a bevy of off-track, fitness-oriented pursuits (clothing lines, a book, maybe a cooking show?) with lucrative potential for long-term commercial viability independent of racing.
Patrick, who turned 35 two months ago, has raced for more than a decade on the national stage and has built a brand and reputation that will carry for decades if she left NASCAR tomorrow.
It might be fair to ask whether she reacted well Saturday night after she was involved in another wicked crash.
But it also seems fair to ask if that reaction should be taken in the context of someone who clearly and understandably has had enough of being involved in violent impacts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited a debate over whether it was “in poor taste” for media outlets to use photos of Almirola clearly in pain while being attended to by safety workers. It already had been a flashpoint Saturday night when a similar photo was deleted by a prominent writer after much negative (and some high-profile) blowback.
The usage of photos with graphic or possibly sensitive content has been a topic in journalism ethics classes for decades. There is no necessarily right or wrong answer.
The reactions are reasonable from Earnhardt and others who know Almirola personally and view publication as tantamount to an invasion of privacy.
But images help tell a story, and along with accepting the risks to their health, race car drivers also enter into a covenant as public figures.
Some of the most famous events in sports history have featured athletes in various degrees of pain and sometimes with bloodshed. Those stories remain vivid in large part because the images associated with them provide compelling and unvarnished veracity.
There also was some outrage over NASCAR’s decision to add a fourth stage to the Coca-Cola 600.
It seems misplaced for several reasons. One is that NASCAR officials have been fairly transparent about the fact that they would be tweaking stages as they were evaluated in their debut season (which has been mostly positive).
The longest race of the year by 100 miles virtually mandated a different approach because of the pit strategies in play over 400 laps. Though you might find it curious why the race was broken into 100-lap stages (some might have expected the last segment to be longer), it’s hard to argue with the logic.
There is some merit to the point that it lessens NASCAR’s major-league credibility to announce this two weeks out (of course, that also begs the question of why weren’t more apoplectic when the All-Star Race format was announced two weeks ahead of last year’s event?)
It would seem prudent for NASCAR just to “own” this by saying, “Yes, we concede it would have been better to announce this in January. But we also think stages are working, and we want to keep improving it during the season.”
By the way, expect more changes for stages in 2018, starting at Daytona.
After track promoters initially were told the 2018 schedule would be released Monday, it now seems likely it will be out next week.
Though still much earlier than in previous years (thanks to five-year sanction agreements in place since 2016), the timing will be roughly two weeks behind when the 2017 schedule was unveiled last year.
One of the major keys to finalizing next year’s slate apparently is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard 400 has been held on either the last week of July or the first week of August since its 1994 inception, but there has been discussion of shifting the date both forward and backward on the calendar.
Martin Truex Jr.’s victory at Kansas reaffirmed many things about the Furniture Row Racing driver – chiefly, that he is learning to win the races he once struggled to close. But it also underscored something about his team and manufacturer.
The Joe Gibbs Racing drought to start the 2017 season isn’t solely because of Toyota. For the second time in three weeks, Truex was asked twice in the last three weeks about the Camrys of FRR outpacing those of JGR.
“They’ve had speed at times,” Truex said. “They’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but it’s there, and they’ll figure it out quickly.”
Based on the way Toyota Racing Development does business, all the information and tools are available for JGR to run as well as Truex. But the trick is getting the data correctly applied.
Truex has attributed his speed to a perfect blend of competition minds in crew chief Cole Pearn, engineer Jeff Curtis and competition director Pete Rondeau.
“We all get the same information,” he said. “Our guys in general are just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. My guys are doing an amazing job of filtering through all that information and making sure the right things are going into the car.
“I think that the good part for (JGR) is that they see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and they know it’s possible as well.”
With two weeks to regroup around the Charlotte Motor Speedway homestand, the guess here is that TRD finds a way to put JGR back on track by pointing them in Truex’s direction.
Colleague Dustin Long got a good nugget Tuesday from team owner Rick Hendrick, who seems optimistic about re-signing Lowe’s and Nationwide beyond 2017.
Team sponsorship concerns have been an underlying story of the 2017 Cup season. Amidst some ominous business indicators for Lowe’s and the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whether Hendrick Motorsports could retain two of its flagship primary sponsors was viewed as an important barometer by the NASCAR industry.
If both return as Hendrick expects, that will bring some sighs of relief well beyond the walls of a NASCAR powerhouse.