Like Athens after it finally fell to Macedon, the years surrounding the merger that created what is now IndyCar were something of a silver age for American open wheel racing. This was the era when the former IRL finally came into its own, aided by both the looming demise of ChampCar and the overwhelming success of charismatic stars of the late CART era as they flourished at Indianapolis and in the series named after it. This era—roughly 2005 to 2011—was the time of Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and to a lesser extent Marco Andretti. It was also the era of Danica Patrick.
The on-track intrigue came from Castroneves, Franchitti, and Kanaan, but the headlines were all Patrick. She became the face of the series upon her Indianapolis 500 debut, bringing IndyCar onto SportsCenter and newspaper front pages and late-night talk shows. Patrick had become to May in Indianapolis what Tiger Woods was to April in Augusta, and she didn't have to win four times to do it. All of this made her eventual departure to NASCAR headline news, an announcement that predated (where he announced he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat) by six months, but mirrored it in both style and scope of reporting. Patrick's final departure from the series at the end of 2011 left a vacuum in IndyCar coverage, one that has simply never been filled.
Patrick's career brought September interest to a sport that many fans only follow for two weeks in May. That means she has a legacy, and that in turn means she's been the subject of online debate since the moment she led a lap at the Speedway in 2005. Understanding the further reaches of that legacy—particularly how it projects on to other women competing in the top levels of auto racing—requires looking beyond simple race results. (If this interests you, .) The more immediate question, however, is more simple: Was she great, or was she terrible?
The answer to that, at least in IndyCar, is fairly obvious: Neither. More than half of any given racing grid is nowhere near either extreme, and one could argue that F1, for example, hasn't introduced a new driver you could call "great" since Sebastian Vettel's debut more than a decade ago. Patrick was notably quicker on ovals than on road courses, won once in seven full seasons, and generally found herself between fifth and 10th in the championship standings of a series with around 20 regular competitors throughout her career. She never got her shot in one of the Penske or Ganassi cars that consistently contend for titles, nor did she get the chance to run in the series during a year of massive engine or aerodynamic package changes, years that tend to balance big and small teams.
All of this, generally, describes the career of someone like Oriol Servia, a respected veteran who still gets an annual call to race at Indianapolis and often gets the first call to replace an injured driver for one or two races. It comfortably outpaces the first nine years of respected owner-driver Ed Carpenter's career, and marginally beats out Marco Andretti's first seven seasons (though Patrick's career is significantly more impressive than what Andretti has shown since 2014). Graham Rahal, who has been competing more or less full time in the series since 2008, lagged behind Patrick in consistency relative to years of experience even during his short stint at Chip Ganassi Racing, and did not pass her in total wins until 2015, his eighth year in the series; Rahal is now a consistent contender for wins. Of those four men, only Andretti faces significant pressure from the racing press for his performance.
If Patrick were any given driver, her performance would draw little criticism, or attention, at all. As one of the faces of the series, however, she drew constant criticism and praise, often in unequal amounts. For the most part, Patrick was simply less interesting on track than many remember, in one way or another. At Indianapolis, however, Patrick was more. At the most important place in American open-wheel racing—at some times, the only important place in American open-wheel racing—Danica Patrick was consistently among the best in the world.
(To examine full results and stats from every Indy 500 that we discuss below, . - Ed.)
Patrick ran the race just eight times, missing six races during the DW12 era as she attempted to carve out a career in NASCAR. She finished in the top ten every time she finished and crashed just twice. In 2005, 2009, and 2011, there were points during the last fuel cycle of the race where she had a real shot at a win. If that pattern had continued over fourteen attempts, she would likely be seen as one of the greatest drivers to never win at Indy.
Marco Andretti is a good comparison point. Like Patrick, he's a star at the Speedway but has struggled to bring that year-on-year consistency to other tracks on a weekly basis. His 13 attempts are just one fewer than Patrick would have had if she had continued to run at Indy while competing in NASCAR. Andretti's five top-five Indy finishes outpace the projection of Patrick's results by just one; move that arbitrary marker to top six and suddenly the two are tied. Andretti's finish rate is just over 75 percent, Patrick's exact projected mark. He also has two finishes outside the top ten, including this year's race, something Patrick has never done. Despite some recent struggles that will tarnish his legacy, Andretti is on pace to eventually be seen as one of the best Indy competitors without a win. The fact that he's been unsuccessful throughout his other IndyCar exploits is irrelevant.
What about Franchitti, Kanaan, and Castroneves, the last three faces of CART to adorn the Borg-Warner Trophy? (For the moment, we will skip over 2015 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, whose legacy is more complicated and far-reaching.) Each, at a different point in his career, was held up by IndyCar fans as the type of driver we should all focus on. The three hold seven combined Indy wins to Patrick's none, but how do their careers compare? Franchitti has as many top tens as Patrick, and though half of those good days were the best possible days, he has four bad races (three finishes outside of the top 10 and one DNF) to her two. Kanaan's finish rate of just 65 percent, emblematic of his risk-taking tendency at the Speedway, sits well behind Patrick's. Only Castroneves has a resume that stands ahead of hers in all aspects. She is not on the level of these legends, the only three drivers I would personally describe as truly elite Indianapolis 500 entrants over the past 20 years, but in consistency she's closer to these stars than she is to the rest of the field of regular entrants in that time period.
Patrick's legacy is complicated, and it will no doubt be part of every conversation about her career as a whole. Despite all of the protestations otherwise, she was genuinely bad in NASCAR, never able to put up the sort of respectable-to-impressive results she consistently posted in cars without fenders. She was notoriously prickly with auto racing's insular and gossipy media, and perhaps as a result, the media has generally not been kind in its portrayals of her character. Eventually, most project her as a NASCAR Hall of Famer simply because the sport seems bent on inducting five figures per year despite producing less than one new Hall of Fame-caliber talent per season. All of that is unrelated to one simple fact, one that goes beyond any other aspect of her career: Over the past 15 years, Danica Patrick was consistently among the better entrants in the Indianapolis 500, something reflected not just in the races she ran but in her results as a whole.
It's fitting that Patrick was among the drivers caught out by difficult conditions on Sunday. Among the DNFs were Kanaan and Castroneves, both running non-elite cars for a full season for the first time in years. Their era was also hers, and for all three, that era is over. The part that each plays in the next era is yet to be told.