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NASCAR's 18-year-old sensation is poised to fill the void left by Danica Patrick — on her own terms

Hailie Deegan (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

This story is part of Yahoo Sports’ She’s Got Next series, featuring women in sports on the rise who deserve their time in the spotlight.

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Hailie Deegan wants you to be patient. If she can be patient, you can too, right?

Deegan, 18, became the first woman to win a NASCAR K&N Series race when she won as a 17-year-old in 2018. She visited victory lane twice more in 2019. She’s now embarking on her first full season in the ARCA Series in 2020 as she works her way up to NASCAR’s top-tier Cup Series.

The daughter of X Games motocross and rallycross legend Brian Deegan has already become one of the most recognizable NASCAR drivers outside of the stars who race weekly in the Cup Series thanks to her last name and a social media following that she’s helped cultivate herself. Her popularity is already massive, especially when you consider that Deegan is now just starting to race full-time in the series that’s roughly the NASCAR equivalent of single-A baseball.

“The popularity has its pros and cons,” Deegan told Yahoo Sports. “When you’re doing great, all the attention is on you, it’s all positive, everyone loves you. When you’re not doing good, you have the attention of everyone on you at the same time and people don’t realize — I race ARCA, I’m going to make mistakes. If I was a perfect driver, amazing, winning everything, I’d be racing Cup. But I’m not. And I have a lot to learn and it’s going to be a process and it’s going to have its ups and downs.”

The positive attention spiked in February after Deegan’s first race at Daytona. She finished second in the season-opening ARCA race on Feb. 8 and became the third woman to get a second-place finish in a race in the series.

‘I want to be known as the badass’

Deegan is highly aware of that attention. As someone who has grown up in a world always dominated by social media, she keeps tabs on the engagement and attention her posts on Snapchat and Instagram draw. Because of her father’s background racing on surfaces that weren’t pavement, Deegan grew up racing off-road vehicles and transitioned to late models before she started racing stock cars.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the media and attention,” Deegan said. “And being a girl there’s kind of two ways you can go about it. You can go about it the serious racer way and you can go about what gets attention and what gets likes. And so you can portray yourself the wrong way and I feel like it’s easy to get attention when you’re a girl in racing the wrong way and so I’ve always kept very core to what my image wants to be.

“And I don’t want to be known as ‘oh yeah, she’s the girl who models.’ I want to be known as the badass girl who goes out there, who rips her dirt car, that trains gnarly and is super-focused on her racing. And I don’t want to portray the wrong image. And it’s so easy to get caught up in that because that’s what gets views and that’s what gets likes.”

Following Danica’s footsteps

Auto racing is one of the few sporting disciplines where women can compete directly against men. And women have been racing in NASCAR since it sanctioned its first race in 1949. Sara Christian finished 14th out of 33 cars in the first-ever NASCAR race at the 0.75-mile Charlotte Speedway dirt track over 70 years ago.

Deegan is one of 100 women who have followed Christian and made at least one start in one of NASCAR’s four national levels. But Danica Patrick is the only woman in NASCAR history to have a full-time ride in competitive equipment at either the Truck, Xfinity or Cup Series level. So far.

Patrick left racing full-time after the 2017 season and made her last NASCAR start in the 2018 Daytona 500. She had seven top-10 finishes over her 191 Cup Series starts after moving to NASCAR from the IndyCar Series and became a mainstream star in the process even if she never finished higher than 24th in the Cup Series points standings or fifth in IndyCar points.

“Danica, obviously she left a major legacy and did a lot for the sport,” Deegan said. “A lot. If people talk negative about her — do you know any other girl who’s made it that far? I don’t. And I don’t know any other girl in racing who’s done as much as she has. And she’s definitely heightened the level. She set a tone, and obviously when you set yourself up a barrier of where her career was, obviously I want to beat stuff. You want to be better than the people around you. But obviously I’m not there yet. I want to be and that’s a goal of mine.”

Patrick’s final full Cup Series season was in 2017, the year before Deegan made her first K&N Series start as a 17-year-old. As Patrick exited and Deegan entered, the teenager with the magnetic and energetic personality and the recognizable last name became the obvious candidate to fill the void left by the woman who had become so recognizable that most people simply called her “Danica.” Even if Deegan was just getting her NASCAR career started before she had finished high school.

“Hailie’s being pushed very heavily to fill that void and I’ve told her this from the day that I met her — and her dad as well — I think they’re doing a very good job of not caving to that pressure,” Hannah Newhouse, a Motor Racing Network host and reporter who has made seven K&N Series starts told Yahoo Sports. “They’re not rushing her up to trucks just because she’s 18, they’re not trying to throw her in an Xfinity car because she’s approved or whatever. They know she’s not going anywhere, so she’ll fill that hole when the time is appropriate and her skill set meets that.”

Driver Hailie Deegan greets fans after practicing for tonight's ARCA Series auto race at Kansas Speedway. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

Going at the right pace

While Deegan’s popularity has soared since she won that first race at Meridian Speedway in Idaho on Sep. 29, 2018, her timeline to get to the Cup Series hasn’t accelerated correspondingly. She’s been publicly pragmatic about her need to gain experience at each NASCAR level before progressing to the next one. There is no plan to skip any levels to get to the top.

After all, the 2020 ARCA season will be her first season racing in a series with a diverse set of tracks ranging from superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega to dirt tracks in the midwest and some of the 1.5-mile tracks that host Cup Series races.

“What I want to do is spend two years in Trucks and two years in Xfinity give or take a year,” Deegan said. “So next season obviously I would love to be full-time racing in the Truck Series and get funding.” 

Ah yes, funding. The dirty f-word for racers at all levels. It’s expensive to try to race competitively in NASCAR, even for someone like Deegan. She’s fighting the same battles to find sponsors that every other driver is. A Truck Series start or two could be on the horizon in 2020. Assuming, of course, there’s sponsor money to back it.

“Everyone that’s going to ask me when you’re going to race in the Truck Series, every person that says that is going to make a donation,” Deegan said with a laugh. “I’m going to make a little donation box. And then I’m going to go race in the Truck Series.”

After racing Toyotas for her two years in the K&N Series, Deegan signed with Ford ahead of the 2020 season to join the manufacturer’s driver development program. Ford says it isn’t going to rush her either.

“I think the great thing has been since the very first conversation that we want to see Hailie succeed and take the steps when the timing is right,” Ford’s Mark Rushbrook said in January. “I've got a lot of confidence that will go through in these coming years all the way to the Cup level.”

“No strong dates as to how much time at each level. We want to make sure — and Hailie wants to make sure, her team wants to make sure — she progresses to those levels when she's ready to ensure success at each step.”

Deegan freely admits that she could have easily decided to keep racing off-road full time instead of making that transition to NASCAR. And while she’s sticking to the course of her long-term plan to get to the Cup Series, she’s also dreaming big at the same time.

“I want to grow my career and be at the highest level possible,” Deegan said. “I want to leave a legacy. I want to be someone. You see how Dale Jr. retired, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, they all left legacies. That’s something I want to do. It’s a goal of mine.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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