NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (10) speaks during a news conference prior to Food City practice Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. (AP photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Danica Patrick is only beginning her first full season of Sprint Cup racing, but she is the one NASCAR driver that most people who don’t follow racing already recognize by name.
She is petite, attractive, smart and funny. She has business savvy. She looks good in a swimsuit. She has starred in over-the-top Super Bowl commercials for GoDaddy.com. She has acted on the TV show “CSI: NY” and appeared as a cartoon version of herself on “The Simpsons.” Her fame has become such that she attracts attention regardless of what she does on the track.
Yet in a recent Coca-Cola commercial, she rode shotgun in a minivan packed with fellow members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family, at one point memorably crushing a soda can on her forehead. Just another one of the guys.
It may be impossible for a pop-culture crossover phenomenon like Patrick ever to blend in seamlessly with her NASCAR driving colleagues. But in Friday morning’s brief news conference outside her hauler at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was clear enough that this woman is nobody’s Princess Sparkle Pony.
“I don’t mind some beating and banging out there. I don’t mind pushing your way around a little bit. It just happens. I did it a little bit at Phoenix even,” said Patrick, who was wrecked by Regan Smith on lap 436 of Bristol’s night race last August.
“I’ve always said from the beginning that NASCAR is a lot of fun for me because if somebody lays on you, you can lay right back,” Patrick said. “You’re not risking your life like the old days in IndyCar when somebody would do something that was not intelligent to you, I understood it was a physical risk to try and get them back because the wheels are exposed and bad things happen. Not here. Not in NASCAR. You can bump and bang all you want.”
Doubters can always find ways to downplay the significance her winning the pole in this year’s Daytona 500. But it was a highly visible on-track accomplishment that may have changed the tone of the conversation. The press corps at Bristol didn’t treat her like a sideshow. She was treated more like a regular driver.
When asked how aggressive she had to be to compete on the BMS oval, she responded like a regular driver.
“I think that is a silly question. As a driver, every single one of us is going to go absolutely as hard as possible,” she said. “There’s never a plan to back off, or go easy or anything like that, other than if you’re saving fuel out there on a strategy at the end of the race, you always go as fast as you can all the time.
“Last year I did 10 Cup races and it was a great way to more than get my feet wet with the series and the different car. It’s nice to come to a place like Bristol but you know it’s going to be challenging. And to know that you’ve done some laps here … 440 isn’t a race here from what I remember of the second race here last year,” she quipped.
Last spring, her eponymous St. Patrick’s Day debut in the Nationwide race was grist for the media mill — that, and the festive green color scheme of her ride. This spring, questions were mostly confined to racing, including Bristol’s three grooves.
“I prefer the fastest line and I would imagine to start the weekend it’s probably going to be a little lower. The second Cup race last year moved to the top and it was really good on the top,” Patrick said. “If you can get the bottom to work and get the car turned, you have some options in your pocket for lap traffic and if you get stuck behind somebody. In general as a driver I’d say I’m more of what I’d call a ‘bottom feeder,’ but you’ve got to run where the grip is.”
Even while staying on message, the impish Patrick couldn’t entirely refrain from having some fun as “That Girl” of NASCAR. The woman who has objected to female athletes being called “sexy” playfully tickled the apparently new growth of beard sported by a familiar male reporter.
The slightly nonplussed fellow completed his question about British racing magnate Bernie Ecclestone’s recent remark that he’d like Patrick test for Formula One. In 2005, Ecclestone made a reference to Patrick’s IndyCar career, creating a stir with his remark that “women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.”
Since that debacle, Patrick said, Ecclestone has regularly sent supportive messages at key high points of her driving career. She is on better terms with F1’s president and CEO than many fans might expect, but she’s not interested in testing for an F1 cockpit.
“It is a lot of work to get fitted in the car comfortable enough to go drive it. Then, as a driver, for me at least, I run the risk of what if it doesn’t go well, and then people judge me for that,” she said. “So unless it was something that I was really serious (about), I wouldn’t do it.”
She is really serious about making her mark on this Cup season. After a couple of downbeat finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas, she finds herself in the same position as most of her NASCAR colleagues: still figuring out the nuances of the new Gen-6 car.
“There were a few common denominators in weekends. I feel like we came away … with some thoughts and concepts,” Patrick said. “I think this car works a little different in traffic. Aerodynamically we have lost a lot of side-force and I think that plays a role. I think we have to get all four tires on the ground the way they need to be. We have to get the rear tied down. There’s nothing you can do if you can’t put the power down.”
Later Friday, her team qualified 41st, putting Patrick’s car at the back of the pack for the start of Sunday’s Food City 500.