“Danica Sue, this is for you!” Those were the words said to Danica Patrick by Darrell Waltrip when the cars took to the track for “The Great American Race.”
Just a few months ago in Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR’s lone female full-time driver announced her retirement from the track. Amid tears, 35-year-old Danica Patrick said she was done, but she still had two more races left: the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
It was dubbed the “Danica Double” which comprised of two of the biggest races in motorsports.
More importantly, they were the two races that made Danica Patrick into a household name.
So the Story BeginsDanica Patrick stepped into the IndyCar Series as a fairly unknown racer in 2005. However, that didn’t last long.
By and large, Patrick’s showing in the 2005 Indy 500 kicked off what became known as “Danica Mania.” Suddenly, the accolades and “firsts” for a woman in motorsports began piling up.
Patrick ran the full schedule in the IndyCar Series from 2005-2011. Sadly, her final race was the season finale in ’11, a race laden with tragedy after Dan Wheldon was killed in a 15-car pileup at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
During her time in open-wheels, she ran 115 races, won one race (Twin Ring Motegi in 2008), seven podiums, three poles, and ranked a career high fifth in the points standings in 2009.
From IndyCar to NASCARMeanwhile, Patrick got her first taste of stock cars in 2010 as she competed in the ARCA Series’ season opener at Daytona with JR Motorsports where she finished sixth. In addition, she ran two part-time seasons, from 2010-2011, in the then-called Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports while also running the full IndyCar schedule.
In 2012, Patrick attempted to do what many others had tried, and most had failed, to do before her, make the permanent jump from open-wheel to stock cars.
Patrick ran the full 2012 season with JR Motorsports and a limited Cup engagement with Stewart-Haas Racing. That season, she posted four top-10s and one pole to score a 10th place points standings result.
From 2013 to ’17, Patrick moved to the Cup season full-time with SHR. She kicked off her rookie efforts with the coveted pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500. In that race, she ran near the front, led five laps, and finished eighth.
Arguably, Patrick’s Cup career was largely uneventful. While she made major strides for women in motorsports, her statistics didn’t live up to the hype that many in the media put on her.
As it were, in five full-time seasons with SHR, Patrick posted seven top-10’s, zero top-five finishes, and her only pole came at the 2013 Daytona 500. Furthermore, her highest finish in the standings was 24th in 2015 and 2016 in 191 starts.
That said, Patrick broke many records during her time on track, including a sterling sixth place finish in the 2014 Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. To this date, this result by Patrick remains the best finish for a female racer in Cup racing.
The Legacy of Danica PatrickWhile her on-track performance may not have been anything to brag about, Patrick’s appeal on and off track brought many newcomers to NASCAR. As a matter of fact, many of her fans are young children.
For this reason, it was never a surprise to see throngs of young kids surrounding her car on pit road before a race and sporting her colors at the track. Her involvement in motorsports has inspired countless young kids, boys and girls, to step in to a racecar.
Patrick’s fans, namely called the DanicaPack, are strong in numbers. Sure, it never mattered where she finished at the end of the race. Ultimately, they stood by her no matter what.
One thing that has always stuck out about Patrick’s time at the race track is everything she did to insure her youngest fans were taken care of. As it were, Danica Patrick’s time in a stock car may be over, but I think we will be seeing the her influence in this sport for years to come.
As Danica Patrick stepped out of the car for the final time, many of her biggest fans took to social media to share their memories of their driver in green.
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Each week after the race, I will take a look at our two Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders and any other drivers deemed a “rookie.” Like a professor, a grade will be provided for their performance on the track. All things considered, a high finish doesn’t necessarily mean a good grade as a bad finish doesn’t always result in a bad grade.
Let’s take a look at how our two ROTY contenders fared after the Daytona 500.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.If I was asked to pick one driver out of the 40 at Daytona who truly shined at “The Great American Race,” I would have to pick Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
In fact, Wallace had the quintessential “crowning glory” week in Daytona to kick off his first full season in NASCAR’s highest league. Stepping in to the iconic No. 43 would be a daunting task for any driver, let alone, a rookie with a lot to prove.
Nevertheless, Wallace’s first official showing behind the wheel came in the first Can-Am Duel race. Starting 13th, Wallace avoided a wreck-filled 60 laps to emerge third and fairly undamaged.
While the Duels only pitted half the field against each other, it gave these young guys a taste of what is to come in the Daytona 500.
Come Sunday, a lot of eyes were on the young driver. Naturally, many were curious to see how he would fair in his first 500.
While this wasn’t his first time at Daytona in a Cup car, as he ran the summer race in 2017 in the No. 43 in an emergency role for an injured Aric Almirola, this was his first real test. Nothing compares to the Daytona 500.
At any rate, Wallace started the race in seventh and ran front to mid-pack most of the race. More importantly, he avoided the wreck-fest that ended Stages 1 and 2 and even managed to escape the “Big One” at the end.
Of course, the biggest headline that came from the 500 was the battle for second coming to the checkered flag. At this point, Wallace and Denny Hamlin found themselves in a door-to-door battle for second coming to the checkered.
In the end, Wallace ended up against the outside wall with Hamlin pinned up against the driver’s door. However, Wallace took runner-up by inches but the real battle seemed to come after engines had been shut off. In comments after the race, Wallace commented that Hamlin raced him much like he raced Ryan Blaney at Martinsville last October. Hamlin countered back with comments on Twitter.
Do we have a new driver feud starting to kick off 2018?
In any case, Wallace’s second place finish made him the highest finishing African-American driver in Daytona 500 history. By and large, this is a great thing for Wallace and for this sport. Furthermore, I think this is only the start of many records that this young driver is going to break this season.
Following the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to his weekly podcast, Dirty Mo Radio, to praise Wallace and his racing by saying, “A lot of people kind of wondered if he had done enough, I guess, to get this opportunity. I never felt that at all or felt like he didn’t deserve the chance. And he went out and proved it on Sunday by driving like a veteran and driving with his head on his shoulders.”
While Wallace had a great start to his season at Daytona, the real test begins this weekend at Atlanta.
Daytona 500 Grade: A-
Notes: While Wallace raced and battled hard for his second place finish, Daytona is one of those tracks where anyone can win. Let’s see how he fairs at Atlanta.
By and large, Daytona was a bit of a wild ride for rookie William Byron. Although Hendrick Motorsports brought a fast car to Daytona, that didn’t stop him from causing a few caution flags throughout the week.
On one hand, Byron’s week at Daytona started off on a high note. Topping the leaderboard for final practice and posting a great qualifying run, Byron found himself in the third starting spot for the first Can-Am Duel race.
All told, that was about the only good thing about the Duel race for Byron and the No. 24 team. Incidentally, he spun out during his Duel race and ended up 18th.
As a result, the North Carolinian started at the back of the field in 33rd for the Daytona 500.
As a consequence, Byron’s first Daytona 500 was fairly eventful as he was involved in a few caution flags. First, Byron was caught up in the Stage 1 crash on lap 60. This incident collected some big names like Jimmie Johnson. Later, possibly due to damage sustained in the earlier crash, the No. 24 hit the wall to bring out a caution for debris.
In the waning moments of the 500, Byron lost grip and lost control of his Camaro. In this case, good handling keeps him mostly damage free and he is able to continue on. Accordingly, he finished four laps down but ten spots higher than where he started in the 23rd spot.
Daytona 500 Grade: C-
Notes: While Byron may not have had a great race, he gained some valuable time in the racecar. Also, this was his first official race in a Cup car. Above all, he still has a lot of learning to do before he can get rid of his rookie stripes.
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Rookie of the Year (ROTY) Candidate: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Wallace, a Mobile, AL native, began his NASCAR career in 2010 in the K&N Pro Series East with Rev Racing as part of the Drive 4 Diversity program. He made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut in 2014 for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) as part of their driver development program. In six starts with the organization through 2014, Wallce logged a best finish of seventh.
While racing with JGR, Wallace competed full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series from 2013-’14. As a matter of fact, Wallace earned a win at Martinsville in 2013, becoming the first African-American NASCAR driver since Hall of Fame member Wendell Scott to win a race in NASCAR’s top three national series.
In 2014, he won four more races in the Truck Series, triumphant at Gateway, Eldora, Homestead and Martinsville.
Just three years later, Wallace leaped to the Cup series on an interim basis for Richard Petty Motorsports’s main racer Aric Almirola. Consequently, in four races last season in the No. 43 ride, Wallace highest finish of 11th at Kentucky.
Wallace made 85 starts in the XFINITY Series, scoring six top-5 finishes and 35 top-10 results.
In 2018, he will take over the No. 43 Chevy Camaro as a “satellite” teammate to the Richard Childress Racing organization.
ROTY Candidate: William Byron
Undoubtedly, Byron, the 20-year-old Charlotte, NC native, might be the youngest in the Cup series. However, he comes in with a ton of talent. In fact, Byron’s career in the top NASCAR touring series began in 2015 in the K&N Pro Series East where he tallied four wins, five top-fives and 11 top-10’s in the 14-race schedule. With strong, consistent performances, Byron won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Championship trophy that season.
A year later, Byron moved up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in a full-time effort for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Dominant all season long, he collected seven wins, 11 top-fives and 16 top-10’s in the 23 race schedule. He was named Rookie of the Year for the series that season, setting a record for most wins in a season by a rookie driver. On the other hand, engine woes at Phoenix derailed him from a championship, as he finished fifth in the final standings.
Last season, Byron competed full-time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He brought home four wins, 12 top-fives and 22 top 10’s in the 33-race schedule. Ultimately, the young driver brought home the 2017 XFINITY Series Championship trophy and the SUNOCO Rookie of the Year honors.
Byron will pilot the No.24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports for the 2018 season. In the mean time, Daytona will be his first start in NASCAR top series.
Sunoco ROTY Scoring
ROOKIE “Yellow Stripe”Rookie drivers will bear a yellow stripe on the rear bumper of their cars. Sometimes, a driver who is not a ROTY candidate will run a yellow stripe if they have not run on that track before. If NASCAR decides that the driver does not have enough experience at that track, yellow stripes will adorn their car.
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