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Hyperbole on the high banks: Danica's Daytona debut

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Danica Patrick's #7 Chevrolet slides through the tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway in the ARCA Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 (Photo:
Danica Patrick's #7 Chevrolet slides through the tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway in the ARCA Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 (Photo:

The attention given two similar on-track incidents during Saturday's ARCA race told the whole story about Danica Patrick's stock car debut.

One incident involved Patrick herself. The other involved Joey Coulter, an ARCA regular. Both drivers were victims of side impacts that sent them through the Daytona infield grass. Both drivers escaped with very little to no damage to their race cars.

One driver's incident was given multiple replays and breathless fawning praise from the SPEED announcers. The other was given a perfunctory second look and comments about being "lucky."

I don't really have to connect the dots for you, do I?

Since it's all over YouTube, here is Danica Patrick's incident after contact with Nelson Piquet, Jr.:

Please take note of Darrell Waltrip's effusive praise, citing Danica's "car control" as the reason why the #7 Chevrolet did not back into the Daytona tri-oval fence. Subsequent replays, however, would show that at the crucial moment when the car began to spin, Danica reacted like any good IndyCar driver would with a wall impact looming - she took her hands off the wheel and let the car ride. She didn't put them back on the wheel until the car had straightened itself out.

Fortunately for Danica, her car got sideways at the curve of the tri-oval and did so after a blessedly brief ride through the grass. The combination of the car's reduced velocity thanks to being sideways on asphalt, together with the banking and the trajectory of the track, ensured that Danica would avoid any wall contact.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Danica got pretty darn lucky.

Not so lucky was Coulter, who found himself going for a 170mph ride straight through the middle of the infield grass. Surprisingly enough, very little footage is available of this incident on YouTube. After some searching, I found this clip (Coulter's incident appears at the 2:45 mark):

Sadly, we are not treated to the complete footage of the incident, nor can we hear the announcers' reactions. This is, after all, Joey Coulter we're talking about.

What happened was this: Coulter's #16 was tapped from behind and forced down into the infield grass. Unlike Danica's "wild ride," Coulter had to wrangle his car back under control without the benefit of asphalt to slow the car down. The brief clip in the YouTube video shows Coulter fishtailing wildly, but it is crystal clear that Coulter was employing some serious car control skill as he kept his machine from spinning out on the virtually frictionless grass. Coulter emerged unscathed at the end of the trioval grass and continued on.

Now, anyone who has done any racing at all will tell you that Coulter's save was significantly more impressive because he was in control of the car through the whole incident, whereas Danica abandoned herself and her car to physics and luck. But to hear the TV announcers tell it - or to read the reviews from racing pundits after the fact - Danica Patrick pulled off the save of the century.

If anyone could top Darrell Waltrip's frankly embarrassing performance as president of the Over 60 faction of the Danica Patrick Admiration Society, it was Terry Blount of ESPN - a guy who really ought to know better. Blount's blog after the race was so admiring, so dripping with unctuous praise, that you almost got the sense he was subtly hoping that Danica would ask him to dinner in response.

Here is Blount's view of Danica's "save":

Patrick went spinning into the infield grass after getting hit by former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet.

"We came out of [Turn 4] and he was kind of dropping back," Patrick said. "He tried to cut over to get the inside line but I was there. I can't go below the yellow line to pass, so it collected us. I could either back off and wuss-out or keep my foot in it and make him react to me."

She didn't "wuss-out." Patrick held her ground and Piquet slammed into the lime-green GoDaddy-sponsored ride. Patrick's car scooted back up the track and appeared headed for a nasty crash into the wall.

But she showed amazing car control and made a surprising save (one that many a Sprint Cup driver wouldn't make), keeping the car straight as it headed back down to pit road.

Big wow.

For my money, the bigger "wow" is that someone who is supposedly a grizzled, experienced and objective racing observer could be so effusive in his praise for what was essentially competence and a great deal of luck.

For the record, I am not "bashing" Danica Patrick here. She performed as well as could be expected in her first-ever stock car race. Of course, she had the advantage of having the best car in the field - a Hendrick-powered and -prepared restrictor plate car of the same kind that has won Dale Earnhardt Jr. so many Sprint Cup races at those tracks.

But for many other observers, Danica's debut was a watershed event - a landmark worthy of national attention. The hype was so oppressive that I wondered to myself whether Danica might not end up back on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Thankfully, I came to my senses fairly quickly (then again, SI's latest issue isn't out yet...).

As a student of history, I am reminded of the beginning of the Space Race in the early 1960s. At the dawn of American spaceflight, there were two separate efforts being conducted to send men into orbit. The first was conducted under the auspices of the United States Air Force, while the second was developed by NASA.

We all know the result of the second program. NASA, basing its Project Mercury program on a theoretical Air Force proposal called MISS (Man In Space Soonest), bundled up astronauts into what was essentially a flying soup can, stuck the capsule on top of a ballistic missile, and lobbed them first on sub-orbital cannonball trajectories and then later into low Earth orbit.

The Air Force considered NASA's approach ridiculous. The astronauts were "spam in a can," as capable of doing actual flying as a bug plastered on a car windshield. Compared to the Air Force's astronaut program, it was ludicrous. The Air Force astronauts flew rocket planes - the X-series, culminating with the astonishing X-15. The pilots were under full control of the aircraft from the moment they were dropped from their carrier plane to the second the aircraft touched down in the California desert. The future for the Air Force program was the X-20 DynaSoar, which was the predecessor of the NASA Space Shuttle - a reusable, fully pilotable spacecraft launched into space by a booster rocket and landed like a commercial airliner.

The Air Force guys waited for the public to realize how ludicrous Project Mercury was in comparison to their own program. But the public never realized it, because Life magazine and the American media latched onto the Mercury astronauts as if they were avenging single-combat Cold Warriors against the Russian menace. The seven Mercury pilots were far from being the most skilled in the nation, but they became overnight celebrities thanks to the press. Even though they were essentially prisoners of physics and controlled next to nothing during their flights, they suddenly became the greatest pilots in the United States thanks to the press buildup they received.

What eventually happened, of course, was that all of the funding went to NASA and the Air Force eventually cancelled DynaSoar and got out of the astronaut business for good. Such was - and is - the power of celebrity to overwhelm common sense.

Some people have asked me about how Danica's stock car career will affect the IndyCar series. Won't Danica's involvement in NASCAR bring more attention to IndyCar racing? The answer is no, for the same reason that Helio Castroneves' appearance on Dancing With The Stars failed to result in an avalanche of new interest in IndyCars. The public's attention is focused on what the celebrity is doing now, not what the celebrity has done. Case in point - think of how many IndyCar fans watched their first ARCA race this weekend because Danica was racing there.

No, the only time attention will flow the other way - from NASCAR to IndyCar - is if a stock car driver decides to try racing an IndyCar. And I'm not talking about a Stanton Barrett here - I'm talking about someone like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kyle Busch. Unfortunately, with the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule stretching over 36 weeks and conflicting with virtually every IndyCar event, the likelihood of that happening is very slim (recent rumors to the contrary).

In either case, the driver's celebrity benefits where he or she is racing (or, in Helio's case, dancing) at the moment. So if the NASCAR world reacts to Danica Patrick with adulation and admiration (deserved or otherwise), it does not "trickle down" to the IndyCar world.

For now, we are stuck watching the same "Danica show" we first saw when Ms. Patrick ran her first IndyCar races - only this time on a much bigger stage. All of the hype and hyperbole that has followed Danica through her career in IndyCars is now crossing over onto the NASCAR scene... which means that every turn of the wheel Danica makes will be blown enormously out of proportion.

I think the really lamentable thing about all of this is that Danica is a better-than-average race car driver. Her accomplishments really do not need to be exaggerated so egregiously. And if you asked her, she would most likely agree that she ought to be judged on the strength of her performances and not on the expectations surrounding them.

But in this age of the Go Daddy Girl© (yes, that is a copyrighted phrase) and swimsuit issues, it seems that competence is the new high water mark for the celebrity racer.