High hopes for female drivers in 2014
The day is coming. There will be paddocks with a representative number of women in NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA. There will be female crew chiefs and engineers. They will worry about performance and be enslaved in the gender-neutral pursuit of sponsor dollars. It will be an egalitarian rat race. It will be blissful.
That day won't fall in 2014, but it's coming. Paige Decker, Ayla Agren and maybe even Karsyn Elledge will see to that. For now, there is more to do to advance women in racing, from Danica Patrick becoming a more formidable part of the Sprint Cup Series to several other talented women finding proper jobs.
Here are 10 things that could advance the interests of women in racing in 2014:
Danica Patrick pleasantly surprises
Patrick was extremely rookie-like after a flourish in Speedweeks last season when she became the first woman to win a pole and lead laps in the Daytona 500 and was in contention for what would have been a world-tilting win in the final laps. Thereafter, she was pedestrian, finishing no higher than 12th, and was 27th in final points.
Still early in her stock car career, with just 46 Sprint Cup and 60 Nationwide races, Patrick is surrounded by success and experience in teammates Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch (four Cup titles between them) and two-time Nationwide champion Kevin Harvick. Osmosis could be a powerful force for development for Patrick this season. And so should experience.
A new Chase for the Sprint Cup format in which race winners are virtually assured of a playoff spot should make her an interesting variable or at least a longer-lasting conversation piece this season. Win at Daytona or Talladega and she's in the Chase. That might get her in the papers.
Simona de Silvestro studies hard
The 25-year-old Swiss driver is leaving IndyCar after four seasons to become an "affiliated" driver with Sauber, which, according to a team release, means she will spend the year "testing, participating in simulator training and preparing for the mental and physical demands of F1" beginning in 2015.
"Simona's ambition is to enter Formula One in 2015," Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said. "We regard her as a very talented race driver, and we, therefore, decided to take her on board as an affiliated driver and support her on her way to the pinnacle of motorsport."
De Silvestro had a breakthrough IndyCar campaign in 2013, producing her best career IndyCar race -- second at Houston -- and points finish -- 13th. Now she focuses on earning an F1 license. Her departure is a net loss of talent and personality for IndyCar.
Johanna Long remains in NASCAR
The 21-year-old from Pensacola, Fla., validated her growing reputation and seemed to energize her fledgling career by winning the prestigious Snowball Derby late models race in 2010, but two partial-schedule seasons with an underfunded Nationwide team based in Indiana has sapped her momentum. She is searching for work as that team, ML Motorsports, is now shuttered.
Long has talent. But being cast into the job market in December makes her prospects for 2014 sparse since jobs and sponsor resources have been allocated since last fall. Long needs to drive whatever keeps her around the circuit as she attempts to cobble something together for 2015.
Ashley Freiberg gets credit (or a check will do)
At what point does the Freiberg buzz begin? A season after becoming the first woman to win a Platinum Cup race and lead the standings in GT3 Cup, Freiberg last month became the first woman to win an overall Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race and the first to win at Daytona International Speedway when she teamed with Shelby Blackstock to take the season-opening race.
Freiberg and Blackstock finished second but were advanced to the win when the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M3 was penalized for a technical infraction. Now Freiberg needs funding to continue her season.
Petty family finds a new piñata
First Kyle Petty claimed last season that Patrick "can't race," then his father, Richard, declared last week that the only way Patrick would win would be if she were the only driver on the track.
Certainly Richard Petty, "The King," with a NASCAR-record 200 wins and a share of the championship record (seven), can speak with impunity, even if his comments are unenlightening -- "This is a female deal that's driving her; there's nothing wrong with that because that's good PR for me" -- and somewhat ... petty.
Katherine Legge becomes SportsCar star
The erstwhile IndyCar driver appears to have found a niche in SportsCar, last season racing the quirky Delta Wing to the lead for the first time at Road America in the American Le Mans Series. No woman had ever led laps in the series.
Legge has long espoused a desire to return to open-wheel racing -- the first woman to lead laps in the now-defunct Champ Car series -- before being inauspiciously dumped by Dragon Racing before last season. With quality rides short, she might be better served riding the Delta Wing into the future for both SportsCar racing and her career.
JR Motorsports continues to advance
Teresa Earnhardt won four championships in the Nationwide Series and two in trucks as a principal in Dale Earnhardt Inc., and her stepdaughter, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has a chance to become the first woman since to claim a top-three NASCAR title with Regan Smith among the favorites in the Nationwide Series this season.
JR Motorsports, co-owned by Earnhardt Miller, her brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Rick Hendrick, has continued to advance as a major team behind the only female executive in the sport. With Mary Louise Miller out as an owner, the opportunities for female advances in ownership focus squarely on the daughter of the late Dale Earnhardt.
Andrea Mueller takes step toward crew chief
Mueller begins her third season as an engineer on the Team Penske No. 22 Discount Ford in the Nationwide Series, which won 12 races and claimed the 2013 owners title with a multitude of drivers. Eventually, NASCAR is going to have its first full-time female crew chief. She might be it. She might not. But she's currently closest.
Paige Decker breaks through
The product of a well-known competitive snowmobiling family, Decker, 20, was named to the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program for consecutive years and will compete in Late Models in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. A Super Late Model driver on Midwestern circuits last season, she became the first woman and first rookie to win a race in the developmental ARCA Midwest Tour Late Models series and the first woman to be named rookie of the year.
Qualified success for Danica Patrick
NASCAR's most impactful competitive change could greatly affect the Sprint Cup sophomore. Patrick's chief shortcoming in 2013, as identified by both her and her team, was an average starting position of 30.1 because of poor qualifying.
A new group session method, allowing teams multiple attempts during a set time window, could help her greatly. Patrick should benefit not only because numerous attempts could bolster her qualifying times but also because time trials are one of the trickiest aspects of racing to simulate in testing since so many real-time variables are involved, such as track temperature and weather conditions.