Martin Truex Jr. has won one Sprint Cup race in 192 starts, represents one of NASCAR’s most lucrative sponsors, and nobody blinks an eye.
Danica Patrick has won one IndyCar race in 98 starts, represents one of open-wheel’s most lucrative sponsors, and she has her talent level questioned every five minutes.
The questions won’t end after her fourth-place finish in Nationwide action at Las Vegas, even though she’s progressing through NASCAR’s steep learning curve faster than any open-wheel vet not named Juan Pablo Montoya.
Even more impressive is that she’s making hay at JR Motorsports, which has struggled at every point before and after Brad Keselowski, and isn’t exactly finding the magic again with Aric Almirola.
She’s pretty damn good at this. And yet she faces countless question marks…question marks the NASCAR community itself could have helped her avoid over the past few years.
Last week in Vegas NASCAR celebrated the 50th anniversary of Wendell Scott breaking NASCAR’s color barrier…at least in theory. The fact that after all this time NASCAR isn’t truly integrated is an indictment of the sport’s inability to be proactive.
That’s why it was all the more troubling in 2006 when Richard Petty said NASCAR wasn’t a sport for women, and nobody in NASCAR’s governing body spoke out against him. Later that year at Dover I asked a NASCAR spokesperson why, and one of his responses was that the office didn’t receive any complaints about what Petty said.
Well, shoot, I’m sure there weren’t a lot of complaints sent in all those years Scott was precluded from competing in the Southern 500, either. That doesn’t make it acceptable.
NASCAR didn’t need to suspend or even embarrass Petty, whose comments were merely outdated, not malicious. (It’s important to note that Petty was an ardent Scott supporter.) But somebody needed to make it clear that Petty’s opinion about women didn’t jibe with the modern era. By not doing anything, it emboldened others who all of a sudden said, “If it’s OK for King Richard to live 25 years behind the times, I guess it’s good enough for me, too.” Every penny NASCAR was spending on its Drive for Diversity at the time was wasted because it wouldn’t issue a simple 100-word press release.
Two years later Patrick won in IndyCar action at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. I tried for a couple of months to get a comment from Petty and was met with defense that would make Dennis Rodman proud. Essentially one of his PR guys said they were too busy marking Petty’s 50th anniversary in NASCAR and trying to find sponsorship for the following season.
Yes, Petty Enterprises was celebrating and sinking at the same time, and Petty was getting some lousy advice from his handlers. If he had come out and poked fun at himself for being so wrong instead of dodging the issue, he and his company would have come off as not so ancient, which perhaps would have appealed to some sponsors.
A number of respected NASCAR journalists calling Petty on the carpet after Patrick’s win would have been good for all involved. But the unique dichotomy of motorsports journalism presented its bad side. While the gypsy-like atmosphere of traveling together 38 weeks a year creates relationships between drivers and scribes that produce some great stories, it often keeps people from asking the tough questions to people who become their friends.
In all, there’s a lot of blame to go around for why Patrick can get a top-five finish in her 16th career NASCAR race and still can’t get the respect she deserves.
In fact, the line goes around the corner.