HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Danica Patrick, the highest-finishing woman in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 and the only female driver ever to win a pole in the NASCAR Cup Series, will compete in both races next year before retiring as a race car driver.
“It just came from my heart, and I think it’s going to be awesome,” Patrick said Friday about her decision during an emotional news conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Patrick, 35, told The Associated Press it took her many months to come to the realization her career is all but over. She said she doesn’t anticipate competing after the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
“Nothing that was being presented excited me, then about three weeks ago, I just blurted out, ‘What about Indy? Let’s end it with the Indy 500,”’ she told the AP. “This ignites something in me. But I am done after May. Everyone needs to put their mind there. My plan is to be at Indy, and then I’m done.”
Patrick said sponsorship is still being solidified, and she has multiple options as far as the teams she will compete for in the events. She said she hopes to drive for a team with a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500 but felt comfortable if she had to earn one of the four spots available through the qualifying races.
She said she hopes to have the teams figured out in the next few weeks.
As far as returning to the Indy 500, she said Indy cars have more downforce than when she last drove them — in the October 2011 Las Vegas race where Dan Wheldon died.
“It will be nice to have a good last [IndyCar] race, for sure,” Patrick said.
Danica Patrick overwhelmed with emotion as she said 2017 is her last as full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver.
The lack of progress as Patrick transitioned from IndyCar to NASCAR resulted in her inability to land enough sponsorship to continue full time beyond this season. Stewart-Haas Racing, the only team she has driven for in Cup, has replaced her with Aric Almirola for 2018.
Co-owner Tony Stewart praised Patrick for her time at SHR and said his team would never have expanded to four cars without her assistance. Though he said he was disappointed to learn Patrick is ready to stop driving, Stewart told the AP that he’s happy she is “doing it on her terms.” He added that he thinks her decision to call it a career at Indy next Memorial day weekend is “awesome.”
“It will make for a huge month of May that she’s back there,” Stewart said. “It would be really cool to see her face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, if she can pull that off.”
Chip Ganassi, whose teams have won the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, said he has talked with Patrick about doing those races, possibly either one of them or both. He said he still needs more information to make a decision.
“I think it’s a great idea for her to do that,” Ganassi said Friday at Homestead. “It’s a fabulous marketing idea.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity and obviously the business side of the deal has to work. … I’m a long way from saying, ‘Yes, I can do that.'”
Ganassi didn’t seem too worried that Patrick could get in an IndyCar and run well at the Indy 500 despite a six-year layoff.
“She’s shown she can run there, and she’s always good there in the Cup car, too, or decent, anyway,” Ganassi said.
While Richard Childress Racing still has a seat open for 2018 and other organizations could field a team by starting an additional full-time car, Patrick apparently could not attract enough sponsorship in a series where a full season typically costs at least $10 million for a competitive ride.
Patrick had her most success in IndyCar, with seven top-three finishes in 115 starts, including a victory in Japan in 2008 and a fifth-place season finish in 2009. An Illinois native, she became the highest-finishing woman in Indianapolis 500 history with a third-place run in 2009 and began her transition to stock cars in 2010 before switching full time in 2012.
She captured the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 and finished eighth in that race, also the highest finish for a woman.
Patrick has seven top-10s — the most by a female driver in NASCAR — in 189 career starts, with a career-best finish of sixth in the August 2014 race at Atlanta.
She sits 27th in the NASCAR Cup standings this year and has not finished a season higher than 24th in five full seasons at NASCAR’s highest level.
When Patrick announced in September that she wouldn’t return to SHR for 2018, she said she was ready to stop racing if she couldn’t find a good sponsor-team relationship that would give her an opportunity to win races.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and you never know how good something can be until you try it,” Patrick told ESPN in September. “So whether that’s of course with another team or whether that’s doing something completely different, I’m open.
“I just want to do what feels right and what will give me the best chance — if I’m racing — will give me the best chance to perform and get in the winner’s circle, which is what I want to accomplish in NASCAR. Or if I don’t feel like that’s something that will be possible, then I’m OK with that too.”
Patrick has repeatedly said that she is financially secure enough that she does not have to race.
“I’ve always driven for good teams, and I’m grateful for that,” Patrick said in September, “which is why if I don’t feel like I’m given the opportunity to be with a team that can do that for me and give me opportunities on a more consistent basis, then I don’t have interest.”
Patrick had been adamant that she would never return to IndyCar or the 500 but changed her mind as she realized her competitive options were dwindling.
“I know I always said I’d never go back to Indy, and I was always being honest,” she said, according to the AP. “Well, things change. I know now you can never say never. I’d been going through this in my head and kept asking myself, ‘How am I going to get the words out and say it’s over?’ And trust me, I lost my [stuff] a few times over that.”
Most IndyCar drivers who have attempted to make the transition to stock cars have failed to match their success at NASCAR’s top level, and Patrick was no different. She has nine top-10 starts in her career and has an average finish of 24th.
“She’s a megastar,” said SHR teammate Kevin Harvick. “As you look at the things that she’s accomplished … who do you compare it to, really?
“There’s not anybody else lined up to fill those shoes and do the things that she’s done. That will create a huge hole if she’s not here.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted out his similar admiration for Patrick.
Despite her poor performance on the track in NASCAR, Patrick will be known as a trendsetter. She has appeared in 14 Super Bowl ads, believed to be a record. GoDaddy, her IndyCar sponsor that transitioned with her to NASCAR, produced the bulk of those ads, some of which were panned for pushing the line of good taste and appropriateness.
GoDaddy ended its SHR team sponsorship in 2015. SHR landed fig-bar company Nature’s Bakery to sponsor Patrick from 2016 to 2018, but the company terminated the deal after one season. SHR sued Nature’s Bakery, and they eventually settled.
Having spent this year unable to find a solid anchor sponsor, Patrick, represented by Excel Sports Management, has opted to stop that search and focus on her interests outside of racing.
She has owned a winery for several years, started her own clothing line, Warrior, and will release her 90-day workout-fitness-mental conditioning book “Pretty Intense” in late December.
Patrick dates NASCAR Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who drives for Roush Fenway Racing.
She said she will come to NASCAR races to support Stenhouse but likely not all of them.
“I love racing, but I love certain parts of racing,” Patrick said. “I’m not driven to just go get in the car and drive. That’s not what I do it for. I have other interests.
“I’m just really excited to be able to do those. … I can go to all these food and wine festivals. I can do charity dinners. With my clothing line, I can go to New York and meet with my designers and go to fabric places and pick them out.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.