Amid one of the most productive stretches of her NASCAR career, Danica Patrick faces the possibility that it could all end after this season because of sponsorship shortfalls. Or at least end at Stewart-Haas Racing.
And in an interview with USA TODAY Sports on Saturday at Watkins Glen International, she seems at peace with the prospect.
Various outlets have reported that SHR had begun negotiations with Patrick to extricate itself from the final year of her contract, but the situation isn’t even that complex, Patrick said.
“There’s no buyout needed,” she said. “I don’t have a sponsor. It’s contingent on the sponsor.”
As recently as three years ago, that would have been an unthinkable prospect for Patrick.
She was backed by online domain name registrar GoDaddy from 2007 with Andretti Autosport in the Verizon IndyCar series to 2015 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with SHR, with the mutually beneficial relationship helping mainstream her as a crossover media and marketing power. But GoDaddy ended racing sponsorships citing changing business objectives.
Patrick acquired fig bar purveyor Nature’s Bakery as a primary sponsor beginning in 2016, but the company sought to terminate the last two years of the deal in January. SHR filed a $31 million breach of contract suit, but Nature’s Bakery countered and a settlement was reached in which the company served as a primary for Patrick and Clint Bowyer twice each to end the season.
Nature’s Bakery was to sponsor 25 of 36 points races for Patrick this season but had the option to sell as many as five. Several of Patrick’s partial sponsors, including Aspen Dental, increased their commitments after the departure of Nature’s Bakery.
By finishing 15th at Kentucky Speedway, 13th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 11th at Indianapolis Motor Speeday and 15th at Pocono Raceway, Patrick has posted four consecutive top-15s for the first time. She had never finished in the top 15 for consecutive races in Cup before the streak and has had just one stretch that was more fruitful, when she averaged a 12.75 finish in four races between mid-March and mid-April 2015.
Patrick, who enters the Cup race at Watkins Glen International 28th in the driver standings, posted a 10th-place finish at Dover International Speedway earlier this season, her first top-10 since finishing ninth at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2015 to cap that career-best run. Her 24th-place points finish in both 2015 and ’16 were career-highs.
Patrick, whose lone top-series professional win came in a 2008 IndyCar race at Motegi, Japan, has long been a target for those decrying what they consider her inordinate amounts of media and marketing power.
Modern racing economics has seen most drivers, among them 14-time NASCAR most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., need to cobble together multiple partners, however. Blossoming NASCAR star Kyle Larson will lose Target after a lengthy relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing after this season.
“I’ve always been very fortunate from a sponsor perspective,” Patrick admitted. “Even when my last [sponsor negotiation] came around, I didn’t have to wait too long, in the summer, to know it was going to happen next.
“I would say mentally, emotionally, my approach has been peaceful and what will be will, and I don’t know. I’m a little bit more present and a little less worried about the future or worried about what happened in the past. I’m just kind of letting it organically flow.”
Patrick’s business team is “looking really hard,” she said, and believes SHR is also.
“Sometimes I feel guilty I don’t always know all the details what’s going on, but it doesn’t really necessarily pertain to me too much,” she said. “The most important thing I can do is do well out on track and stay positive and be in a good mood. But I know there’s a lot of work behind the scenes, though.”
Patrick said she would consider racing for another team. She would not, she said, consider a part-time ride.
Patrick’s sponsor woes are not unique at SHR. Though the No. 4 of 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick, who is third in points, is fully funded, backing has been pieced together for Bowyer and the team this week opted not to renew the option on 2004 series champion Kurt Busch, whose No. 41 has been backed by owner Gene Haas’ machine tools company and Monster, which has decisions to make on rejoining the team and enacting an option as NASCAR title sponsor.
Patrick said she wasn’t sure where she ranked among SHR’s priorities.
“I think that as a team would go, we are struggling for sponsorship,” she said. “I don’t know where I fall in the grand scheme, but I have been fully-fully funded since I arrived with 10 races in 2012 and even the day that I lost my primary sponsor, I still didn’t have the least amount of sponsored races of anyone on the team. I still wasn’t in that position, and then we had partners step up.
“(I’m) still pretty funded this season considering the situation that occurred. I know Kurt’s had a lot of races funded, but he’s also been helped by Gene a lot, too, and Haas Automation. Clint doesn’t have a lot of races sold, so yeah, as a team would go, it’s not a highly funded overall amount of races for four cars.
“So, I’m sure that’s something they’re evaluating, considering and trying to make sure that they put themselves in the right position for moving forward.”
SHR executive Joe Custer said the team does not discuss contract negotiations but said the team plans to field four Cup cars in 2018, with Busch in one of them. Busch, who qualified for the playoffs after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 told ESPN on Saturday he was not concerned about his prospects and “there are different cars that are options for me, and Stewart-Haas is one of them.”
Whatever happens, Patrick said, she’s fine after working on her “emotional, mental side” in recent years.
“Yeah. I’m getting old and Zen. I am,” the 35-year-old said. “And I’ve also said too, for the last year or two, but for sure the last year that I don’t have fun running 25th. And I know it’s been getting better lately, and there’s been a lot of the year we should have been in the top 15 a lot. So, unless I feel like I’m going to be in a scenario where that’s the case, then I just don’t care. I’d just rather not.
“I have a lot of great things going on. I have a lot of amazing opportunities out there. Life is too short to be miserable. Like, half of the zen is, you know what, unless I feel like I have a chance to go out there and be very competitive and have a chance to win and run in the top 15 or 10 every week, then I have no interest in going out there and just participating. Never have.”
With the difficulties in acquiring high gollar sponsors since goDaddy left her, I would be extremely surprised to see Danica in the SHR No.10 Ford fusion when Daytona rolls around in February.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!