Danica Patrick will make just her second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series appearance in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (SC) in her first return to the series since the season-opener Daytona 500.
Dennis Worden, director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, told TicketNews in a recent email that the track has definitely been running ahead on sales the last couple of weeks. Worden said that although they can’t make the assumption that the increase is attributed to Patrick’s visit, it could definitely be a factor with fans interested in seeing how the driver will perform at the track nicknamed “too tough to tame.”
The female driver has some stock-car experience under her belt driving full-time in the Nationwide Series in the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet; however, Patrick has had little seat time in a Sprint Cup car — her last appearance in the series was in the Daytona 500 in February in which she got caught in a wreck on the second lap of the race and ended up finishing in 38th.
Despite the challenges that Patrick will face, fellow NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin has confidence in Patrick’s abilities. “It’s going to be tough in her spot to get taken out so early in the 500 that she didn’t get to really experience the draft like she probably should have,” said Hamlin during the series’ visit to Phoenix, explaining that he hit the wall 19 times in his first visit to Darlington. “I went to Darlington and the challenge will be for her at Darlington…She’s going to get into the wall. All those things are going to happen, but you can’t get discouraged — you have to go back out there and you have to hit it again until you figure out what limit it takes to run fast there. It’s going to be a challenge, but she’ll figure it out.”
Car owner and Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart knew exactly what he was doing when he chose the races that Patrick would run driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. “I have kind of thrown her to the wolves with the schedule,” said Stewart during Media Day at Texas Motor Speedway in March. “We didn’t pick easy races. You want to pick the places that are hard so that when you are running for points that you have that experience from the year before. At the end of the year, she may not really like me very much. I think by the time midway through 2013 she is going to understand why we picked those races.”
Darlington representatives are certainly happy that Stewart chose the track as a stop on Patrick’s part-time Sprint Cup tour. “I think it has generated a lot of publicity with it being her second Cup race of the season,” said Worden to TicketNews. “Darlington is known in NASCAR as one of the toughest tracks to drive on the schedule so fans and media are wondering how she’ll do at one of the sport’s toughest racing venues. There is a lot of hype around her being here this weekend for sure.”
The series’ only female driver, Patrick is no stranger to success being the first woman to lead in the Indianapolis 500 and taking home a fourth-place finish, the best by a female racer, according to the Charleston Post Courier. Through eight Nationwide Series races this season, Patrick has one top-10 finish and led two laps at Daytona after starting on the pole based on figures by Racing-Reference.info.
During her visit to Richmond almost two weeks ago, Patrick showed optimism when asked about the upcoming race at Darlington. “I know it’s going to be hard, I know there’s going to be some frustrating moments and some moments I’m probably going to feel a little embarrassed,” she said. “But I’m there to get my Darlington stripe and move along.”
Worden, director of public relations for Darlington, said that the track has not done any specific marketing for Patrick’s run in the Sprint Cup race, because her appearance was not guaranteed until Sunday. “She was in our advertising promoting the race weekend because she was definitely running the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 race on Friday,” said Worden to TicketNews. “Now she is guaranteed to run both, which is great!”
Patrick announced last summer that she would make the move from the IZOD IndyCar Series to NASCAR in 2012. Besides running full-time in the Nationwide Series, part of Patrick’s move would also include running 10 Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing, a team owned by champion Tony Stewart, and then eventually running full-time in NASCAR’s top-tier series in 2013.
While there is no way to know the exact effect that Patrick’s move to NASCAR has had on attendance and TV ratings, those involved with the sport are certain that the effect has been positive. “A true value can’t be assigned to the number of fans who attend races, watch the races on TV or buy merchandise specific to Danica’s presence in NASCAR, but you can certainly surmise that it’s been positive,” said Tracey Judd, director of competition communications for NASCAR, in a recent email to TicketNews. “She brings her own fans to NASCAR, and we hope they’ll stay with us long after she retires from our sport.”