DOVER, Del. — Danica Patrick was the darling of Daytona before she put on a helmet. Patrick ushered in the 2013 season accompanied by hype perhaps no other NASCAR rookie had ever faced: Her love life, Super Bowl ads and racy photo shoots were trendy themes that generated more enthusiasm than her actual career accomplishments.
She was projected as the new face of the sport — a face that corporate America adored — was flush with sponsor cash and was counted on as a role model for the next generation of little girls and casual fans who couldn’t flip through a magazine or turn the dial without seeing "Danica." Then she raced, and became the first woman to win the pole at NASCAR’s top level, her Q-Rating soaring higher than her race speeds and a career rebirth in stock cars seemingly under way. She led three times for a total of five laps, was running third behind Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one lap left and finished eighth. Patrick turned in the best finish by a woman in the Daytona 500.
It may turn out that her career peaked at Daytona.
Her 182-race NASCAR Cup career has never yielded anything close to the Danicamania that engulfed Daytona. She never had a top-five finish for Stewart-Hass Racing. She never won another pole. She never had much success but, along with Earnhardt, was still one of NASCAR’s only true mainstream stars. But as results sank, so did interest in funding her ride. Sponsors bailed, cash dried up and at just 35, Patrick could be facing the final seven races of her NASCAR career.
Patrick has, at least publicly, seemed at peace with this possibility and said there has been little interest from other teams in bringing her aboard next season.
"I’ve had some (discussions) but not a ton," she said Friday. "I let the business people in my business handle that and have those conversations and figure out what options are out there and I continue to let them do that."
Even if Patrick somehow found a last-minute primary sponsor, rides are scarce for 2018. Richard Childress Racing and Furniture Row Racing could maybe field a car for her, and she won’t sign with a team that can’t offer a competitive ride. While Earnhardt’s final season has come with fanfare, gifts, donations and a celebration of his career, Patrick’s last ride has been anything but, and if she’s going out, it’s not by choice.
Of course, Patrick made more of an impact than most drivers with a collection of checkered flags.
"The inspiration that you are told that you bring to people, especially to kids," she said. "That’s a role that you can’t buy your way into. You have to earn that. You can’t just stumble into that. That’s probably the most meaningful."
This weekend at Dover International Speedway, her Ford will have a pink paint scheme to mark Breast Cancer Awareness month. She gave eight women affected by the disease race lessons last week at Chicagoland Speedway.
"These women have struggled through a lot and some of them have gone through it more than once. It was a good day," she said.
Patrick is as much a brand as she is an athlete. She launched the clothing line "Warrior by Danica Patrick" on HSN after participating in the design process. She developed the workouts and meal plans for her book, "Pretty Intense: The 90-Day Mind, Body and Food Plan that will absolutely Change Your Life." Sponsorship woes aside, Patrick is still a marketable personality and could host a talk show or become some sort of lifestyle guru in the next phase of her life. She could even marry Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and start a family.
Patrick said she has no plans to return to IndyCar, where she won a race and led laps in the Indianapolis 500 before shifting to NASCAR, but declined to totally rule it out.
"My life changes in ways I never expect every couple of years," she said.
Patrick, who credited her NASCAR career to team owner and three-time champion Tony Stewart, never finished better than sixth in a race and sits just 28th in the standings season finale looms in November. She finished 24th in the standings each of the last two years for a team that includes 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and 2017 Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch. Her only top 10 of the season was in the first Dover race.
Asked if she’s had the best equipment, she said, "probably not."
"But have I had good teams? Absolutely. Have I had good equipment? Absolutely," she said. "I think what the challenge is, is those last little details and having a group of people around you that really believe that you can do it and are willing to go beyond the call of duty for the job."
Patrick’s contract with SHR ran through 2018, but the team has been searching for sponsorship since Nature’s Bakery abruptly ended its three-year deal after one season. She said four years ago during her Daytona glow she could see herself in NASCAR for 10 years. So much for that.
The career was cut short — her influence will last. For the next female driver seeking a Cup ride, too.
"Just as I had to do and anyone that comes after me will have to do, they’ll have to prove themselves," she said. "They will have to bring a lot to the table. They will have to work really hard. Nothing that anyone after me brings will be simple and easy. It’s going to be work. Just as it’s work for every guy, too. You have to be lucky. You have to catch the right moment with the right ride with the right sponsor.
"But when the opportunity presents itself, you have to be ready."