NASCAR Controversy: Danica Patrick Races in Daytona 500

There’s nothing like a good controversy to rev up NASCAR fans. Whether it’s because of new racing rules, car design changes, or driver clashes on the track or after the race, fan emotions tend to run high. Recent changes, such as NASCARs conversion to Electronic Fuel Injection and their new regulations to reduce two-car drafting, have caused heated debates. However, nothing can compare to the uproar caused by the recent announcement that Danica Patrick has been guaranteed a starting position in the Daytona 500. Why should this be a problem? Let’s look at the details surrounding her entry into the Super Bowl of stock car racing.

Danica Patrick’s Racing Experience

Patrick’s recognition as a race car driver has evolved through the years because of her actions both on and off the racetrack. Like any famous sports figure, her popularity is based not only on her skill as an athlete, but also on her skill as an entertainer. She’s enjoyed a great deal of success off the track, but none of this success should negate her accomplishments as a race car driver. Here’s some of the ways she has proven that she is more than just another pretty face.

Patrick caught the racing bug early while driving go-karts, and by age 12 had won the World Karting Association National Championship. She continued to hone her skills in karting competitions for five more years until 1999, when she moved to England to race in open-wheel Formula cars. In 2000, she finished 2nd at the Formula Ford Festival, the highest-ever finish of any American.

She moved up to the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 2005. That same year, she raced her 1st Indy 500, leading 19 laps, and eventually finishing in 4th place. She was also named the IRL Championship Rookie of Year in 2005. She went on to win the 2008 Indy Japan 300, and placed 3rd in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. During her six seasons in the IRL, she racked up 20 top-five finishes and 61 top-ten finishes.

She began her transition to stock cars in 2010 by competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Her rookie year in NASCAR was not particularly noteworthy, but in 2011 she finished 4th in the Las Vegas race, and was in contention for first place at Daytona’s Nationwide Series race, until she became entangled in a car crash.

Although these stats may not put her in the top echelon of race car drivers, they do demonstrate her commitment to motor sports and her potential as a serious competitor.

The Controversy

NASCAR rules state that a driver must have at least 35 owner’s points to be guaranteed a spot in a Cup race. However, since NASCAR allows points to be transferred among drivers, the Stewart Haas Racing Team and the Tony Baldwin Team decided to award Patrick the necessary points to guarantee her a spot in the Daytona 500 and nine other Sprint Cup races. Although controversial, point swapping is a well-known practice in NASCAR. In fact, this is how Trevor Bayne, winner of last year’s Daytona 500, got his entry into the 2011 Daytona 500. However, what makes Patrick’s situation different is that even with her limited experience in the Nationwide Series, she has been given the opportunity to jump right to the top tier of stock car racing. Furthermore, she will have a seat in the Daytona 500, which many consider should be reserved for only drivers who have proven they’re the best in NASCAR. Other drivers might also take this shortcut to Daytona if given the chance, but critics see Patrick as getting an undeserved pass into the big leagues of stock car racing.

The Business of NASCAR

The growth of NASCAR has been fueled by engaged fans and sponsorships. Therefore, to thrive, NASCAR not only needs drivers who have on-track talent, but also drivers who will bring excitement to the sport. Furthermore, sponsors seek drivers who are effective spokespersons for their products. As other talented drivers increase their popularity by doing backflips off their cars or posing in Wrangler Jean ads, Patrick has used her marketing skills to advance her brand recognition. She has a successful track record for bringing attention to her sponsors, to the Indy Racing League, and she will ultimately bring even more attention to stock car racing. Undoubtedly, her driving accomplishments will continue to be debated, as well as her legitimacy to compete at the highest level of NASCAR. Whether you believe her accomplishments justify her seat in the 54th running of the Daytona 500 or not, the decision has already been made. It’s time to leave the controversy behind, and enjoy “The Great American Race.”

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