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Danica Patrick: Career retrospective

Whether in IndyCar or NASCAR, Patrick has been one of the biggest stars in auto racing for over a decade. Her time in the spotlight has not been without drama though, be it with other drivers or surrounding her personal life away from the track. Let's take a look at some of the biggest stories that defined one of the sport's biggest stars.

 
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The beginning: Rahal Letterman Racing

The beginning: Rahal Letterman Racing
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Patrick signed on with Rahal Letterman Racing in 2002, but it wasn't until December 2004 that the team named her to its IndyCar Series roster for 2005. Patrick's first race did not go well, as she crashed and was hospitalized for a mild concussion. She would go on to have more success as the year wore on, including a season-best fourth-place finish at the Indy Japan 300. Patrick became the second woman in IndyCar history (Sarah Fisher being the first) to take pole position, doing so in the season's eighth race.

 
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Debut at Indy

Debut at Indy
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Patrick's debut at the Indy 500 was highly anticipated, and she was seen as having a legitimate shot to win after setting the fastest overall practice speed and starting fourth. Patrick's chances to win vanished, however, when she was forced to conserve fuel late. Still, she led for 19 laps and set a variety of firsts with her performance, ultimately finishing fourth. It was the first of many appearances in the Indy 500 for Patrick but ended up as her second-highest finish ever in the race.

 
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Switch to Andretti Green Racing

Switch to Andretti Green Racing
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Patrick moved from Rahal Letterman to Andretti Green Racing before the 2007 season and posted two top 10 finishes in her first four races. She finished eighth in that year's rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 and closed the season strong, finishing third at the Bombardier Learjet 550 and second at the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. Patrick's efforts for the season saw her finish seventh in the standings, posting 11 top 10 finishes along the way.

 
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First victory

First victory
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After a solid first season with Andretti Green Racing, Patrick kicked off the 2008 season with what would prove to be her only victory in IndyCar or NASCAR, winning the Indy Japan 300. In doing so, Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar Series event. In the race, she took the lead with three laps remaining after the race's previous leaders had to pit for fuel. The victory was part of a season that saw her finish fifth overall in the point standings, highest of all Andretti drivers and higher than any driver not affiliated with Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing.

 
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A career-best finish on the biggest stage

A career-best finish on the biggest stage
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Patrick's 2009 Indy 500 saw her start 10th, which was tied for her worst starting position in five appearances to that point. However, she rallied to finish third and had what many saw as a legitimate chance to win dashed by a late-race caution after a serious accident. Still, Patrick again made history by beating her own previous fourth-place finish and notching the best finish ever for a woman at Indy.

 
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From open-wheel to stock car

From open-wheel to stock car
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After a few more years of open-wheel racing, Patrick decided to make the switch to stock cars and focus exclusively on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series full time. Before she dove in all the way, and while still racing in IndyCar, Patrick dipped her toe into the stock car world. Her first stock car race came in the ARCA Racing Series at the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. Despite spinning early in the race, Patrick rallied to finish sixth, and her comments after the race made it clear that her future was in NASCAR.

 
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Breaking a NASCAR record

Breaking a NASCAR record
John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

In 2011, racing for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and finishing up her IndyCar slate, Patrick found more time to make racing history. After finishing 14th and 12th in the season's opening races, Patrick took fourth place in the Sam's Town 300, which was both the best finish in her Nationwide Series career, as well as the highest finish by a woman in NASCAR history, breaking Sara Christian's record, which stood for 62 years.

 
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Danica takes New York — sort of

Danica takes New York — sort of
Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

By 2010, Patrick was a television veteran and not just as a competitor. She previously hosted shows on Spike TV, did a guest spot on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and was becoming more and more visible in commercials, particularly for GoDaddy. Patrick gave acting a try on "CSI: NY," though she didn't step too far away from her real-life background, playing a race car driver suspected in a murder. Patrick went on to do broadcasting work, as well as appear in video games and comic books, even doing some voice acting.

 
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Saying no to Formula 1

Saying no to Formula 1
Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is one of the most powerful and possibly most notorious figures in auto racing. Patrick flirted with the idea of jumping to Formula 1, but the Honda team pulling out of the sport nixed that. When Formula 1 returned to the U.S. in 2012, Ecclestone seemed enthused by the prospect of Patrick joining, but she never seriously considered doing so from that point on. Given Ecclestone's reputation, it was probably a good career move by Patrick.

 
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Relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick publicly announced that she was dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2013, though the pair had been together since 2012. After Patrick left IndyCar and joined NASCAR, Stenhouse helped ease the transition period, with an AP report at the time even saying that he served as a sort of mentor for Patrick as she adjusted to stock car racing. The two were competitors and were involved in a few memorable wrecks with each other. They announced their split in late 2017.

 
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Pole position and more history at Daytona

Pole position and more history at Daytona
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Patrick never enjoyed the level of success in NASCAR that she did in IndyCar, but that didn't stop her from making more history in 2013. Patrick secured pole position for the Daytona 500, becoming the first woman to accomplish the feat. She ran in the top three for most of the race but eventually faded to eighth place. Still, that made her the highest-placing woman in the history of the race, and because she led for five laps, she became one of only 14 drivers to have led both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.

 
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Getting into it with Denny Hamlin

Getting into it with Denny Hamlin
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Patrick was known for her fiery temper and refusal to back down to her male counterparts, and one of her most famous spats came with Denny Hamlin. Patrick spun out twice in the run-up to the 2015 Daytona 500, with Hamlin following her closely both times. After spinning out during their qualifying race, Patrick confronted Hamlin on pit road with a gaggle of cameras surrounding them. They had it out in a heated confrontation, but while it made for a spectacular photo-op, the two soon patched things up — in Patrick's telling of events, by later on that evening.

 
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All is fair in love and racing

All is fair in love and racing
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Patrick's relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was, by all accounts, a happy one, right up until the two parted ways. Still, any bumps in their metaphorical road were at times caused by their cars bumping on the actual road. Patrick and Stenhouse were involved in multiple wrecks, including one at Chicagoland Speedway in 2014 and one at Sonoma Raceway in 2017. While Patrick admitted that rides home were at times tense after these incidents, it was mostly with a lighthearted tone. 

 
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Tussling with racing royalty

Tussling with racing royalty
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Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were NASCAR's two biggest stars during their time in the sport, and while they were friends away from the track, with Patrick getting her NASCAR start with Earnhardt's JR Motorsports, tempers occasionally flared because of events on it. That was never more evident than at the Quaker State 400 in 2015, when Earnhardt ran into the back of Patrick's car 200 laps into the race. Audio of Patrick's profane reaction to the incident was captured, and she ended up running into Earnhardt's car on pit road. Patrick finished 34th in the race and was still fuming well after it ended. Still, despite a few other on-track dust-ups, the two have remained friends.

 
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Stewart-Haas Racing and more records

Stewart-Haas Racing and more records
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Patrick began racing in the Sprint Cup Series on a limited basis with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2012. The partnership lasted for several years, and during her time with Stewart-Haas, Patrick set yet another record with her top 10 finishes at the 2015 Food City 500 and STP 500, pushing her past Janet Guthrie for the most top 10 finishes by a woman in Sprint Cup Series history. Patrick also became the first woman to start 100 Cup Series races with her appearance at the Quaker State 400. 

 
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Criticism from the Petty family

Criticism from the Petty family
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After a somewhat disappointing 2013 campaign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, one that saw her finish 27th in points despite winning the pole for the Daytona 500, Patrick was the target of criticism from NASCAR legend Richard Petty, as well as his son, Kyle. After Kyle termed Patrick merely a "marketing machine" in 2013, Richard Petty, when asked in 2014 if Patrick would win a race in NASCAR's top series, responded, "[Only] if everybody else stayed home. If she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she'd showed up at the track." When asked about the remarks, Patrick took the high road, merely stating that she felt that everyone was entitled to his or her own opinion, while steadfastly refusing to pass judgment on Richard Petty's remarks. 

 
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Backing from fellow drivers

Backing from fellow drivers
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While Petty's remarks caused a stir, Patrick's fellow drivers rallied to her support. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson in particular were much more measured in their evaluation of Patrick, with both stressing that learning to compete in the Sprint Cup Series was a process, one that often took several years and plenty of trial and error to nail down perfectly. Even Petty grudgingly conceded that the attention Patrick was bringing to the sport was a good thing for all parties involved.

 
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Popularity contest

Popularity contest
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Patrick's consistency on the track, ability to compete well at the highest level in both open-wheel racing and stock car racing, as well as her passionate demeanor, charisma and overall performance in a traditionally male-dominated sport made her one of, if not the, biggest stars in auto racing. At her peak, Patrick's popularity was rivaled only by a handful of drivers, particularly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite tempers flaring between Patrick and other drivers on more than a few occasions, she was, impressively, able to capture the imagination of fans while also securing the respect of her fellow competitors.

 
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Pitchwoman extraordinaire: Danica and GoDaddy

Pitchwoman extraordinaire: Danica and GoDaddy
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Patrick's racing skills and success in a male-dominated sport got her on the radar of sports fans across the country, but her partnership with GoDaddy and the subsequent Super Bowl commercials it yielded turned her into something of a pop-culture icon. Whether the spots were inspirational or racy, they got people talking and had GoDaddy.com's homepage flooded with online traffic. GoDaddy is one of several high-profile companies that has partnered with Patrick throughout her racing career.

 
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Another first, this time at the ESPYS

Another first, this time at the ESPYS
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick has been a fixture at the ESPYS for years, but this year, she will make history as the first woman to host the sports awards show. Patrick's hosting turn at the ESPYS, which have been around since 1993, will represent yet another facet of what is shaping up to be a robust post-racing career of entrepreneurial endeavors and front-facing entertainment work.

 
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Chicago-Green Bay power couple

Chicago-Green Bay power couple
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

After her breakup with Stenhouse, it didn't take long for Patrick to find love again, this time with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fresh off his own high-profile split from actress Olivia Munn. As of right now, things are going so well between the two that Patrick, a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, recently went on the record as saying that not only will she cheer for Rodgers individually, but for the whole Packers team as well.

 
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Disappointment in the last ride at Daytona

Disappointment in the last ride at Daytona
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick was hoping to go out with a bang in her final Daytona 500, but instead the race ended in disappointment. She was involved in a six-car crash 102 laps into the race and wound up placing 35th. It was an inauspicious end to her NASCAR career, and she finished her stock car racing tenure with no overall wins and only one top 10 finish at the Daytona 500.

 
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One last spin at Indy

One last spin at Indy
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick's racing career concludes this Sunday at the Indianapolis 500, where she will race for Ed Carpenter Racing. Despite talking about how jarring the adjustment back to IndyCar was, Patrick still managed to qualify seventh for the race. All eyes will be on her as fans hope against hope to see a fairy-tale ending in her farewell to the sport.

 
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An undeniable impact on motor sports

An undeniable impact on motor sports
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Even Patrick's detractors could not help but admit that her influence on auto racing was extremely positive. Patrick brought heaps of mainstream attention to the sport, and her crossover appeal with sports fans in general brought viewers that otherwise would never have considered watching racing. Some have gone so far as to say that Patrick saved IndyCar from dissolving. What's more, she served as an inspiration to many young girls, proving that they too could take up racing and expect to compete on even terms with boys. It's no exaggeration to say that Patrick's impact on motor sports will be felt long after she finishes her final race.

 
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What's next?

What's next?
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While she might be done racing after this weekend, it's safe to assume that sports fans will still see plenty of Patrick in various capacities. She has numerous business interests, plenty of television experience, and throughout her career has displayed plenty of charisma and business acumen. Given her immense popularity in the sport, as well as her mainstream pop culture crossover appeal, Patrick will likely be a fixture in the public eye for years to come.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.


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