By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart called Danica Patrick “fearless” on Wednesday, his first comments about her upcoming departure from his race team in a financial move that could end her full-time driving career in NASCAR.
Patrick will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. Unless she can secure significant sponsorship, she likely won’t be able to find another full-time ride.
Patrick is the only woman racing at NASCAR’s top level and she’s also the most accomplished.
“I’ve always been a believer in Danica’s ability as a racecar driver and that continues to be the case. She’s one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. She has never backed down from a challenge,” Stewart wrote on his Facebook page. “In fact, she’s sought out new challenges throughout her career, and that’s what brought her to NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Patrick has driven for Stewart-Haas Racing her entire Cup career. She has seven top-10 finishes in 180 career starts and is currently 28th in the standings, the lowest in her Cup career. She won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, won an IndyCar race in 2008, is the highest finishing female driver in Indianapolis 500 history with a third-place run in 2009 and is the only woman to lead laps in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. Patrick is the only woman to win a Cup pole and those top-10 finishes are the most of any female Cup driver.
“Making the jump from IndyCar to NASCAR is not easy, yet she had the courage to do so and put up better numbers than a lot of other drivers who have tried to make that same transition,” Stewart wrote. “My support for Danica is unwavering. We’re going to end this season strong and make the most of these last 10 races.”
Patrick’s sponsorship package fell apart at the start of this season when Nature’s Bakery backed out of a three-year deal after just one season. Patrick’s contract with SHR ran through 2018, but the team has been searching for sponsorship since the Nature’s Bakery fiasco.
Smithfield Foods on Tuesday said it was moving its sponsorship from Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas next season, and the financial decision set in motion Patrick’s departure. Ricard Petty and the Smithfield CEO traded insults over lack of performance at RPM being the reason Smithfield is leaving.
Kevin Harvick noted Wednesday that Patrick’s performance likely played into her current predicament. The two are teammates at SHR and Harvick has tried to help Patrick over the years. Like Stewart, he pointed to the difficult transition Patrick had to make from Indy cars to stock cars.
“Danica has been a huge part of this sport and turned a lot of people into racing that might not have ever turned into racing,” Harvick said. “I hope that Danica gets a sponsor because she’s important to our sport.”
SHR and Smithfield have not said which driver the company will sponsor next year. The team does not have a deal yet with current Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, and Busch, Patrick and Clint Bowyer have all had sponsorship difficulties this season. Smithfield could end up on the car Patrick has driven with another driver, or the team could downsize.
Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, said he’s not a candidate to replace Patrick and he believes SHR already has a driver in line for the No. 10 Ford.
Patrick has launched a clothing line, has a book coming out next year and has made a transition into promoting a healthy and fit lifestyle. It has her positioned for a second career at the age of 35 if she chooses. A Wisconsin native who grew up in Illinois, she is in a long-term relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who will make his debut in the playoffs this weekend at Chicagoland.