DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To get an endorsement from 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti is the ultimate compliment any race driver can have.
And when it comes to talking about Daytona 500 Pole winner Danica Patrick the IZOD IndyCar Series legend has high praise.
“I say ‘Go Girl’,” Andretti said. “She has taken advantage of everything she has as far as opportunities. She is with a great team at Stewart Haas and they are giving her some really fine equipment and putting it to work. I think it is a wonderful thing she is successful there. I think it speaks volumes for IndyCar because that is where she comes from. It shows we have pretty good drivers in IndyCar that can get the job done in NASCAR as well. I think it’s a good thing all around. It’s wonderful for the sport, great for NASCAR, great for Danica and wonderful for GoDaddy.”
Andretti knows what he is talking about when it comes to NASCAR because he won the 1967 Daytona 500 for one of the top teams at that time – Holman-Moody Racing. He is the only driver in racing history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship (1978).
Andretti has an involvement with Patrick’s sponsor – GoDaddy.com and was confident that Patrick’s GoDaddy.com Chevrolet would claim the Daytona 500 pole last Sunday. She made history as the first female ever to win the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race. In fact, she is the first female ever to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole.
“I predicted it,” Andretti said. “She had a fast car in preseason testing and in practice and Stewart Haas Racing is a very good team. So I was very happy to see Danica Patrick win the pole.”
Patrick drove for Andretti Autosport from 2007 to 2011 – a team owned by Mario’s son, Michael.
“I enjoyed her very much,” Mario Andretti said. “On a personal level what I appreciated about Danica was her work ethic. She is a real professional. She is flat-out – a complete package in many ways. She is very desirable as a representative to GoDaddy.com. The fact she works hard at what she is doing and when you see that in someone you have respect. I have great respect for her.
“When I see her be successful I’m happy and say ‘Go Girl.’”
When Patrick was a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 she became a motorsports phenomenon when she nearly won the pole and became the first female driver ever to lead laps in the Indy 500. She was in the lead with seven laps to go before she was passed by eventual winner Dan Wheldon.
Patrick won a NASCAR Nationwide Series pole at Daytona last year and backed that up with the Daytona 500 pole this year so it’s obvious she has a knack for the spotlight at Indy and Daytona
“She just makes it happen,” Andretti said. “Like I said she is smart. She aligns herself with good teams. They do a great job for her and she takes advantage of that. When somebody is successful and they work hard at that you can only admire that and I do admire her.”
When Patrick announced late in the 2009 season that she would spend the next two year’s competing in both the IZOD IndyCar Series and a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule it was obvious to Andretti that she wasn’t doing justice to either form of racing. That is why it made sense for her to leave at the end of the 2011 season and compete full-time in Nationwide in and limited schedule in Cup in 2012 before moving up to Cup full-time in 2013.
“Her mind was in NASCAR at that point,” Andretti said. “She was just trying to finish off her time in IndyCars. It was a transition time. She certainly didn’t have her mind fully engaged in the IndyCar scene so it was suffering for sure. But you have to look at what her goals were at the time and she had to make the transition somehow and that is the way it was. I do agree with Michael she was short-changing the team and herself in the IndyCars for sure.”
Patrick drives for another former IndyCar champion, Tony Stewart. When he left IndyCars in 1998 to join Cup full-time in 1999 he won a rookie record three races. Since that time he has won three Sprint Cup titles and two Brickyard 400s and has become one of the great drivers in NASCAR history.
Will Patrick prove to be better in stock cars than in IndyCars?
“That is hard to say if she will be better in stock cars,” Andretti said. “Quite honestly the stock cars are easier to drive because they don’t run street races and they have power steering. The physical part doesn’t come to play but in IndyCars it does. That is not her fault. Her physique is very small. She had some limitations in the IndyCar because of that but in the stock car she doesn’t because those things are easy to drive physically.
“When you look at NASCAR the way they weigh the cars all she has to do is add 40 pounds. You put her next to Ryan Newman and he spots here by 140 pounds so she has a 100-pound advantage on him. Believe it or not 100 pounds works. I know at Indy whenever I tried to do the quickest time one gallon of fuel made a big difference. Touché to her – take advantage of what you can.”
Winning the Daytona 500 is quite an accomplishment but it remains to be seen what Patrick will do in the Daytona 500. The rules of the game will change dramatically when 42 other cars compete in NASCAR’s biggest race all with the same goal of achieving Daytona 500 victory.
“Any top 10 finish would be golden for her,” Andretti said. “It all depends on how many people will work with her and very likely not too many will because of her limited experience. She may be left out to dry. There you go for the best shot you have as far as who you try to help and get help from. All of that will play out. If she shows early on she really has a fast car and a desirable partner they will gravitate toward her. We have to see how it plays out. Her car is fast but let’s see how it works out in traffic.
“I’m pulling for her but I pull for a lot of drivers there. I like a lot of the NASCAR drivers. If she does well I will feel very good for her for sure.”
Andretti is also a big fan of Patrick’s IndyCar Series replacement at Andretti Autosport, James Hinchcliffe. He proved last season that he is a fast racer with a terrific personality.
“I don’t think they could have done any better,” Andretti said. “I think they got very lucky with the character he brings to the team and to the sponsor. He fits in unbelievably well with the culture of the company. He is a savvy young man. He is attractive to the press. He is great to have around. He has a great sense of humor. Marco brought him to the lake and he is a joy to be around. I know that GoDaddy loves him.”
As for Andretti’s NASCAR experience, his 1967 Daytona 500 victory was his only trip to Victory Lane in stock car racing’s highest division and he is just as proud of his accomplishment today as he was 46 years ago.
“You can imagine it was another one of those perfect days in my career,” Andretti said. “When you win the Crown Jewel of NASCAR that was outside of what my specialty was as an Open Wheel racer. To have the opportunity to drive down there with one of the best teams at the time and with Ford. I had a great relationship with Ford in other categories. Two weeks after winning at Daytona I won the 12 Hours of Sebring in a Ford in a Mark IV. Daytona was one of those things where things worked well. It didn’t start out so good. In practice I had some issues and was not getting the engines I should have gotten as far as the power. I was down on power but I got as much information as I could. Not too many people came forth but I remember Donnie Allison was one guy I befriend at the time and he was honest with me. He told me with the gear I was pulling I should be turning this many revs and I was 400 revs shy. I started squawking about it and finally got a good engine.
“Just before the qualifying races I was scuffing tires 2 miles an hour faster than Curtis Turner was and he was on pole. We had a fast car and the reason for that I had to race the same spoiler that I qualified and because I had a tough engine in qualifying I had a very small spoiler.
“The car was loose but it was a manageable loose. It worked for me in the race. I had the boys confused a bit because I kept going for the lead and led 112 laps throughout the race and was competitive from the beginning to the end so that was the ultimate satisfaction for me.”
An Italian immigrant who lived in Nazareth, Pennsylvania Andretti was unique to NASCAR at that time but he enjoyed competing against the best NASCAR drivers of his era and remains held in high regard even though his claim to fame came in IndyCars and Formula One as well as USAC Midget and Sprint Car racing.
“I never felt out of place,” Andretti said. “For one thing I had already met Mr. France (NASCAR founder Bill France), who was a fabulous individual. I had driven the 24 Hours at Daytona a couple years before and he welcomed me. I felt right at home. I just tried to earn their respect. I had already done a few things in IndyCar so I earned their respect. I got along very well with the drivers. There was no concern at all.”
The same could be said for Patrick who has become the new face of NASCAR in 2013. And on the track she is proving she is not just another pretty face.