Never say never: Polarizing, but popular, Danica Patrick back at Indy

3 Comments

For the third time in the last 12 months, the open-wheel motorsports world has been smacked across the head with unexpected, shock news that definitively qualifies as the proverbial “jaw-dropper” of a story.

Just under one year ago, Nico Rosberg dropped the mic and retired after winning his first and only Formula 1 World Championship. Last April, three days after IndyCar raced at Long Beach and F1 raced in China, Fernando Alonso and McLaren pulled a somewhat bigger surprise by announcing they’d run this year’s Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.

And now, a driver equal parts popular and polarizing in this country – Danica Patrick – has announced Friday at her last full-time race as a NASCAR Cup Series driver that she’ll sign off her career at North America’s two biggest 500-mile races in Daytona and Indianapolis in 2018.

If such a comeback seems hard to believe, it’s largely because it is.

But the allure of going out at the race that made her name in North America is a tantalizing prospect and gives Patrick, who’ll be 36 next March, one last chance at glory at a race that, it’s easy to forget, she did rather well at.

The pure stats are solid: six top-10 finishes from seven starts, with 29 laps led, are very respectable numbers. More than the results though, Patrick helped lift the revival of the race that had sputtered for a good seven or eight years following the divisive Indy Racing League/CART split of 1996, and lifted the 2005 TV rating to a significantly higher number than it had been since the split.

There’s a nice closing here that could come with a return, as well, depending on the team she selects.

Looking at the Indianapolis 500, it’d only stand to reason Patrick would return to the race with one of the top-line teams that could be considered an Indianapolis favorite.

Perceived ‘big three’ outfits Team Penske (five cars), Chip Ganassi Racing (four) and Andretti Autosport (six) combined to field 15 of the 33 cars themselves last year.

A Ganassi bow is more than possible considering the team will run only two full-time cars next year and will have both the cars and crew (from its Ford GT sports car program) available for extras. The question now about an extra Ganassi car is if this announcement changes the potential idea of Kyle Larson running in 2018.

Meanwhile Michael Andretti’s team can run at least six, with five already confirmed as Stefan Wilson joins that group’s full-season four (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Zach Veach). However a return here for Patrick is “not in our plans,” an Andretti Autosport spokesperson told NBC Sports.

An extra Penske car is unlikely given that team’s four cars, and a fifth would presumably only be added for Juan Pablo Montoya if circumstances develop that way.

The only other realistic option to consider would be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where Patrick made her IndyCar debut and ran with her first two full seasons. The team has significant strength in its engineering department, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion driver in Takuma Sato added in a second car, and recently Graham Rahal made comments saying he’d welcome Patrick back if her plans allowed.

“I mean, Danica I would consider a great friend of our family. Certainly was a big part of the history of our program years and years ago,” Graham Rahal said during IndyCar’s teleconference announcing its 2018 schedule.

“It would always be great to have her back to drive at Indy. But really that’s completely up to her and the decisions that she makes.”

Any of those teams figure to offer a car and an engineering staff with top-10 finishing potential. The question for Patrick is whether she’d acclimate back to IndyCar like a driver with no IndyCar experience (Kurt Busch, Fernando Alonso) or as one with IndyCar experience, but a long time ago (Jacques Villeneuve).

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Her six seasons in NASCAR have produced little in terms of on-track results (only seven top-10 finishes, total), but her success there is not quantified solely by the stats.

She’s positively impacted a generation of young female fans, as well as provided beneficial exposure for companies associated with her. It’d be hard, for example, to think about GoDaddy as a company without the relationship they fostered with Patrick. And a year like this year where she experienced turbulence in the sponsorship side served as the exception to her career, not the norm, for a driver used to having built her brand with some good people and companies around her.

The teams she’ll have for Daytona and Indianapolis next year, particularly at the latter, will have to prepare themselves for the inevitable media circus that will follow. But they can also be prepared for good potential performance on-track in both races.

At Indianapolis in particular, Patrick is another early “extra star” that comes beyond the other story lines set to materialize for next May, and her presence will be chronicled heavily.

Next year’s Indianapolis 500 will be the first big oval race with the new 2018 Dallara universal body kit, which features significantly reduced downforce. This new car has both a significantly different aero package, as well as a reduced engine displacement – the 2.2L twin turbocharged V6 engines are a far cry from the 3.5L normally aspirated V8s she last drove in 2011. If she handles the change well, it speaks volumes of her ability through significantly different car transitions in the sport, which she never had to worry about in her 2005 through 2011 tenure.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 22: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, talks with the media after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It could, again, provide a boost in TV ratings after two consecutive years where the number has been down in 2016 and 2017. Alonso’s presence this year was a significant media generator throughout the month – almost to the point of overkill – but it turned out his impact was more important internationally than it was domestically. Alonso’s dalliance with North America though has grown into another major U.S. race start next year in Daytona, for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Now, Patrick and fellow longtime IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves are the two featured guest attractions this year – and it’ll feel like old times all over again. Both figure to be good not just for TV ratings, but for ticket sales at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month.

And for Patrick, it’s a chance to come back to a race that always felt like home. An open-wheel racer in her upbringing and at heart, the competitor in her couldn’t have been satisfied by the years of 20th-odd place finishes with the occasional “solid top-20 finish” serving as a “good day.”

Much has changed since. As of this writing, only nine drivers who raced in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 are still confirmed full-time in IndyCar for 2018 (Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato) with a few more from that race to be added.

So it’s a different landscape of a series now, an IndyCar Series that’s really grown with its own drivers over the last several years compared to one where her presence – often through no fault of her own – overshadowed the other stars.

In a final guest starring role, Patrick has one last chance to steal the spotlight in a beneficial ending to her own career, and the Indianapolis 500 as a race… if not the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole.

“I never thought I would do it. I always thought never but I never said never. Here I am,” she said today.

The story of her new finale in IndyCar’s biggest race has only just begun.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, stands next to the Borg-Warner Trophy prior to the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

MRTI: Juncos signs Carlos Cunha for Pro Mazda campaign

Photo: Juncos Racing
Leave a comment

Juncos Racing continued to bolster its entries in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires by signing Carlos Cunha to pilot a third Juncos Pro Mazda entry for 2018. Cunha, who finished third in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season on the back of seven podium finishes, joins Rinus VeeKay and Robert Megennis in Juncos’ Pro Mazda lineup for 2018.

Cunha previously tested with the team at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in October and joined Juncos for the Chris Griffis Memorial test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November, testing cars for both the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires teams.

“It’s great to become a part of Juncos Racing,” said the 18-year-old Cunha. “I am really excited to start the 2018 season with Juncos Racing. This fall we did some testing together and from there I was able to see how focused everyone on the team is and I even felt like I became a part of their family in no time. I am confident we will get great results together next year and I look forward to learning and growing more with the team. It will be a huge pleasure and also a great responsibility to carry the number one on my car, thanks to (2017 Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni) and I hope to deliver it back to the team at the end of the year!”

Team owner Ricardo Juncos added, “We are excited to add Carlos to our Pro Mazda lineup. From the moment we started testing with him in early October, we knew he would be a great fit for our team. Carlos has been very quick in testing and even had an impressive showing in the Indy Lights car at the Chris Griffis test back in October. He had a great run this past season in the Pro Mazda series and we are confident he will carry that momentum into the 2018 season.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne