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Column: Danica squanders chance to leave truly lasting mark

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Danica Patrick never lacked for attention.

Too bad she failed to capitalize on all that hype.

Patrick’s racing career, which ends Sunday at the same place where she had her coming-out party 13 years ago , was trailblazing in many ways, but should be also be remembered as an opportunity lost — especially for any other women coming along in the rearview mirror.

If Patrick had been more successful on the track, it likely would’ve opened the door for other female racers.

Instead, with just a single victory over 306 events in America’s top two racing series, there’s one word that comes to mind.

Underachiever.

“I feel very good about the way it has gone,” Patrick insisted as she prepared to close out her career at the Indianapolis 500.

Fair enough. She certainly deserves credit for crashing through the glass ceiling at 200 mph, carving out a spot in the boys club that is NASCAR and IndyCar. She became known to the world on a first-name basis, much like Elvis or Beyonce.

Danica.

‘Nuff said.

But as she leaves, there are no other women in NASCAR’s top series.

The only other woman in IndyCar, Pippa Mann, failed to qualify for the 500.

For those of us who were there in 2005 , when Patrick burst on the scene as an Indy 500 rookie and the future looked so bright for those who had traditionally been shut out of the sport, that’s a huge disappointment.

It was probably an unfair burden to place on one woman. But when Patrick surged to the lead that day in the closing laps — the first woman ever to run up front on racing’s grandest stage — it really didn’t matter that she settled for a fourth-place finish. Her performance seemed far more significant than the guy who crossed the yard of bricks first, the late Dan Wheldon.

My first two sentences epitomized the euphoria: “Danica Patrick knew she could hang with the boys. She nearly beat them at the Indianapolis 500.”

Across the nation, you could almost hear a cacophony of viewers punching their remotes as word got around that a woman had a chance to win the 500. The television ratings that day remain the highest at Indy since a devastating civil war in the mid-1990s nearly killed open-wheel racing in the U.S.

Patrick would go on to win three pole positions and lead a total of 63 laps that season, a tantalizing start to a career that nearly everyone thought would remove, once and for all, the sexist stigma of putting a woman behind the wheel.

In 2008, halfway around the world at a race in Japan , Patrick became the first woman ever to claim the top spot on the podium in an IndyCar race. Never mind that her victory came in a race with only 18 cars, matching the smallest field of her career. Never mind that she crossed the line first while most of America was sleeping.

The biggest barrier of them all had been scaled.

“I’m thrilled for her that the monkey is finally off of her back,” Michael Andretti, her car owner and a member of racing’s royal family, said in Victory Lane. “We have all believed in her and she proved today that she is a winner. Frankly, I think this is the first of many.”

Sadly, it was the first and only.

Patrick would race three more years in IndyCar before heading off to the larger dollars and bigger exposure that NASCAR provided.

That’s where she really got stuck in the slow lane.

Other than a pole-winning run at Daytona in 2013 , there’s no way to sugarcoat the results. Her Cup career was largely a bust, despite having a prized seat with one of NASCAR’s strongest teams, Stewart-Haas Racing.

— She never finished higher than sixth in a race.

— She never finished higher than 24th in the season standings.

— She led only 64 laps — out of 53,561.

Both in IndyCar and NASCAR, Patrick underperformed compared to her teammates.

She got her first big break with Bobby Rahal’s team, which was coming off a victory in the 2004 Indy 500, and later moved to Andretti, perennially one of the best groups in open-wheel racing.

But only twice in seven seasons was she the highest-finishing member of her team in the season standings. During her five years with Andretti, Patrick managed that lone victory in Japan, compared to 15 trips to Victory Lane by her various teammates (and a series championship for Dario Franchitti in 2007).

The gap was even more striking in NASCAR. Over five years with Stewart-Haas, Patrick’s teammates racked up a total of 22 victories. Kevin Harvick captured the Cup title in 2014. Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 in 2017.

After her NASCAR sponsorships dried up, Patrick was essentially forced into retirement at the relatively young age of 36, handing off the No. 10 car to Aric Almirola.

Tellingly, he already has had five top-10 finishes in 12 races — compared to seven in 191 Cup races by his predecessor. Almirola is 10th in the overall standings, far higher than she ever was at this point in the season.

Patrick decided to close out her career with a “Danica Double,” one final run in each of America’s biggest races.

At the Daytona 500, she crashed out and finished 35th.

At Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, she’ll start from the seventh spot in another fast machine (her team owner, Ed Carpenter, is on the pole).

One last chance to live up to all that hype.

“To finish up where it all started 13 years ago, lucky No. 13, is really cool,” Patrick said.

Too bad what happened in between.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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AP Sports Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.

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For more AP racing coverage: http://racing.ap.org/

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