By Bill Whitehead
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This space at Mostly Panthers Hockey is generally reserved for the players, games and issues surrounding the Florida Panthers, but with the Olympic break occurring and Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway opening, this is a fine time to throw a little NASCAR talk out there.
As I have done since 1997, I trekked north to Media Day on Thursday. Drivers from NASCAR’s top three series venture to the big track and discuss issues they talked about one week earlier in Charlotte at that media tour. It’s a reprisal for the drivers, really, but the Florida media and those who cover the sport’s beat get to fire off a few more questions. It’s a starting point to a new season.
The big question in the Daytona 500 Club on the infield of DIS: Was Richard Petty right to say what he did about Danica Patrick on Monday in Toronto? If you missed it, the 7-time champion Petty, when asked if Patrick could win in NASCAR’s top series, replied, “If everybody else stayed home.”
Winless as she begins her second full Sprint Cup Series season, the feisty Patrick again found herself as the center of attention when the media swarmed her at 8:20 a.m., just after all the coffee had settled in us. She didn’t shy away from the question, smiled that pretty smile, flipped her hair to one side and essentially pulled her No. 10 Chevrolet out onto the on-ramp that led to the high road.
“You know, people have said things in the past, and they’re going to say things in the future. I still say the same thing: that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. People are going to judge what he said, whether they judge it well or not, and I’m just not going to,” said Patrick, who fielded numerous questions about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at last year’s Media Day, which had more of a TMZ feel to it.
The last two Cup champions – Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski – weighed in and appeared to side with their on-track opponent.
“He has a right to his opinion like everyone else, and he makes some pretty strong points when you read his whole transcript, but it’s a long ways to go out there and say someone will never win a race. I wouldn’t want to have my name behind that comment, so I think I would probably give that a little more time and see how that one plays out because there are races where I think she could win,” said Keselowski, the 2012 champ.
Johnson said he was unaware of the comments until he got to Daytona, but I find that hard to believe unless he lives in a vacuum. Sure, he’s a new father again for the second time, but even diaper duty and midnight feedings can’t keep you in the dark when the sports world discussed Petty’s comments for two full days.
Plus, who doesn’t look at Twitter every couple of hours to get an idea of what’s topical?
“I think her most immediate opportunity to win would be plate-wise (with) what she’s shown down here, especially in the 500. I’d say plate racing is probably the first opportunity for her,” the 6-time champ explained.
Keselowski and Johnson are both right, and sadly, the King comes off looking a little senile and, well, petty in this one. It’s a low blow from an iconic figure, which sounds as odd as it reads. It’s Petty’s “Get off my lawn!” moment.
Has Patrick struggled? Yes. After finishing seventh in the Daytona 500 last year, she looked lost most of the season’s remainder. Plus, she simply won’t be able to win at tracks like Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond – bullrings where her hard-nosed nature isn’t up to snuff with the big boys in NASCAR who got their starts on short tracks and who’ve logged countless laps.
Right now at her current rate of development — barring fuel strategy, staying out with rain approaching or backing into a win somehow — she has four good chances to win each year: At the two restrictor-plate tracks in Daytona and Talladega.
And remember this: She was running third when the white flag came out over the Great American Race last February. Anyone running third in a fast car at a restrictor-plate track – and where she won the pole – has a chance in those closing laps to win a race and make history as the first female driver to claim victory in NASCAR’s premier series.
I wonder how Richard Petty would react to that.