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The ball is now in Danica Patrick’s court – an ironic analogy if ever there was one, considering the last time two high-profile athletes got into an “anything you can do I can do better” exchange, the woman tennis player handed a whuppin’ to the man.
The challenge this time is not about a tennis match but a match race between two high-profile NASCAR stock car racing personalities, Richard Petty and Danica Patrick.
Petty said Friday that, sure, he’d take up the challenge and come out of retirement to race Patrick in equally prepared stock cars provided by her employer, another legendary NASCAR character, Tony Stewart.
Whether it will happen remains to be seen but you can bet that NASCAR would love the publicity such a head-to-head matchup would bring, because, although the racing series is still No. 1 in North America, it has been experiencing declining television ratings and noticeable numbers of empty seats at live events.
The war of words started during a media scrum at the Canadian Motorsports Expo here in Toronto two weeks ago. Petty was a special guest and was questioned by Raceline Radio’s Erik Tomas, Toronto Star Wheels motorsport writer Stephanie Wallcraft and me. I got to ask the last question, and said:
“The question must be asked: can Danica Patrick win a race in NASCAR Sprint Cup?”
And Richard Petty (now famously) replied, “Only if everybody else stayed home.”
I wrote the story and posted it that night and it went – as they say – viral.
Petty stuck to his guns and stood by his quote. He had to, of course. The interview was recorded and you can listen to it by clicking here. And his son, Kyle Petty, had said much the same thing last year and didn’t back down from those statements either.
For her part, Patrick – when asked about it during the lead-in to this year’s Daytona 500, which will go to the post Sunday at 1 p.m. – said everybody was entitled to their opinion and that people had said the same thing before and would undoubtedly say the same thing again.
Patrick, who is a lightning rod for controversy just about every time she gets into a racing car (she won a race in the IndyCar Series and always finished well in the season points race; her NASCAR career has not been as successful, although she won the pole for the Daytona 500 last year which is more than many of the men racing in the series can boast), drives for Stewart, who has a four-car team in the series.
Stewart was interviewed on Performance Racing Network this week and said Petty – who won 200 races in his storied career – should back up his words with action: take on Patrick in a match race.
“I think that (a race) would pretty much settle it once and for all, maybe get him to shut up a little bit, too,” Stewart said. “I will supply the cars. If he wants to race her, I’ll make sure they have exactly the same setup in the car and give him the chance. He can drive one of my (number) 14 cars. I don’t care.”
And then he added that if Patrick won: “If I were her, I’d take (the checkered flag) over there and cram it up his (butt).”
Petty was being kidded about this on the show “Fox & Friends” on Friday and, out of the blue, said he’d accept the dare.
“I’m 76 years old, okay?” Petty said, grinning (Patrick is 31). “It’s been 25 years since I’ve been in a race car. But I’ll take that challenge. When is this going to happen?”
This is reminiscent of 1973 when retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs, who was 55 at the time, said publicly that the women’s game was inferior. He challenged Billie Jean King to play him but when she declined, Margaret Court – who was 30 and the top women player in the world at the time – accepted the challenge. They played on Mother’s Day and Riggs won.
King, 29, then felt she had to defend the honour of women tennis players and told Riggs she would play him. The Battle of the Sexes was an international television hit when the two met in September at the Houston Astrodome. King won handily and the publicity gave tennis a major boost in popularity.
NASCAR needs some help and this could be the publicity it needs because – as was the case with the tennis match – non-racing fans would undoubtedly tune in to watch.
The Daytona 500 pre-race show will start on television at noon Sunday. I suggest Danica Patrick will wait till then to say – one way or the other – whether this race will happen, or not.
Record ratings could result.