NASCAR's France still has high hopes for Danica Patrick

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO, addresses the Detroit Economic Club meeting Thursday at the Dearborn Inn Marriott.

Dearborn — Not everyone at Thursday's Detroit Economic Club luncheon was a diehard NASCAR fan, so it's no surprise that the first question asked of Brian France was about a star with a fan base that extends far beyond the track.

"What is Danica Patrick really like?"

"Well, uh," France began, to laughter.

France, the third-generation CEO of the United States' most popular auto-racing circuit, never really finished the question.

But later, in a quick session with reporters, he was asked again about Patrick, and to no surprise, France is pulling for her to find success.

"I think it's important," France said before rushing out for a flight to the West Coast. "She gets a lot of attention and she is competing at a higher and higher level. I think she's getting better all the time.

"I think the results show that, too."

Patrick is the sport's biggest celebrity, though not anywhere close to its best driver. That's a point of contention among some fans, who believe NASCAR's first female star should've actually had to win a race before ascending to such heights.

This is Patrick's fourth full season on the NASCAR circuit, and she's competed in 86 Sprint Cup races. She's never won, and only has finished in the top 10 four times.

Patrick has one sixth-place finish, one seventh, and two eighths, one of those coming at the 2013 Daytona 500, where she started in the pole position for the first and only time.

Yet, because she's also modeled and been a sought-after spokesperson, her net worth is approaching $20 million, exceeding some of the far better drivers.

France was asked if Patrick, 32, can eventually break through and drive her way into Victory Lane.

"I think it's possible, sure," said France, 52, who took over as NASCAR CEO in 2003, succeeding his father, who succeeded his grandfather, Brian France Sr., the circuit's founder. "I don't drive the cars, so she'd be the one to ask that. But I know she's getting faster and better, and that's in the results. She's got pretty high expectations for herself.

"And I hope she meets them."

Gordon's role

While Patrick hasn't won, Jeff Gordon has. A lot. Gordon, 43, has 92 Sprint Cup wins and 455 top 10s in his career, which is coming to a close.

The four-time series champion announced before last month's Daytona 500 that he would step away from full-time racing after this season.

France is hopeful Gordon will still play a significant role with NASCAR, whatever role that might be.

"I really do," France said. "He's obviously an important part of our present and history. He did a lot of things outside of NASCAR that drew attention to the sport, and then he got it done on the track.

"He'll continue to have a presence."

France mentioned broadcasting as a potential fit for Gordon.

Heavy hitters

Thursday's event at the Dearborn Inn Marriott is one of several headliner events on the Detroit Economic Club's itinerary this year.

Future speakers include Ohio Gov. John Kasich (April 13), Detroit mayor Mike Duggan (April 22), retired general and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark (April 28), and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus (May 13).