Danica’s legacy a mixed one

Danica Patrick will always have a story. A week ago, Will Power achieved something many talented drivers of auto racing never do — win the Indianapolis 500.

Power already had an impressive resume of 33 open-wheel victories and numerous pole wins, but until last Sunday, he hadn’t won the biggest race of them all.

You’d think that he’d be the most talked about person coming out of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but instead, it was somebody who didn’t even finish.

Yes, in the final race of her career, Danica crashed in the 68th lap when her car spun out. She also crashed at the Daytona 500 earlier this year, so in a way, it was sort of appropriate.

Danica exploded onto the sports scene in 2005 as a rookie when she led 19 laps at the Indy 500 and almost won it. In 2008, she became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race when she took the checkered flag in Japan.

She became a household name and achieved something few athletes have done, being known simply on a first-name basis, like LeBron, Kobe or Peyton. The weird thing is that she managed to do that despite not being anywhere near as accomplished as those other three athletes.

Being a successful female driver helped create Danica’s fame, but her deft marketing ability sustained it. She drove the most recognizable car in IndyCar, which had a flaming, neon-green logo emblazoned with her sponsor GoDaddy Inc. and had frequent appearances in TV commercials that were quite popular.

No matter what track she drove on, she always had the largest following. I covered the Indy 500 as a journalism student during what was her previous last appearance in the race in 2011 and the hype and flock of people around her was insane.

She also seemed to have a love-hate relationship with fame, thoroughly enjoying her time in front of the cameras but bored with the fact she had to do it in the first place.

Eventually, her popularity outgrew IndyCar and she moved over to NASCAR, where things didn’t go as well for her. She never won a race and never finished in the top five. However, she was the first woman to start Daytona on the pole and she remained very popular despite her lack of success, which frustrated traditional fans.

Even though she was never deemed a “favorite” in a race and never threatened in the Sprint Cup standings, Danica managed to always be in conversations at the track, both before and after the race.

Heading into this year’s Indy 500, Danica was the No. 1 topic. Could she win despite not racing in IndyCar for seven years? Would a strong finish help quiet her growing number of critics? Did she even care that she was there? She acted very aloof back the last time around, the race that I covered, so I don’t blame those who thought that.

For me, I was just hoping she’d finish. Winning was a long shot, but after the disaster in Daytona, it would’ve been nice to see her car cross the finish line in one piece. She started Indy in seventh position, ahead of some previous winners and even three-time champion Helio Castroneves, so if she raced smartly, she had a legitimate shot at a good finish.

Instead, she spun out not even halfway through the race, cementing her legacy in her critics’ minds as an overrated driver.

Now that her career is over, the question is what will Danica’s legacy be? It’ll be a mixed one, that’s for sure. She was very talented but also overhyped. She inspired lots of girls to get interested in auto racing, but based on what’ve seen at race tracks, most of her fans seemed to be middle-aged men. She was quite successful behind the wheel, but also didn’t reach her full potential. Finally, she was a famous driver, but over time, she turned into a celebrity who sometimes drives a car.

Danica’s racing legacy may be up for debate and the opinions will always be mixed. One thing is for sure, though, and it is that no matter who she dates or where she goes or what she does, she’ll always be the story.

From now on, though, she just won’t be the main one.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.