NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: With Danica Patrick’s departure, who will carry the racing torch for women?

It was sad to see Danica Patrick crash out of the final race of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

The only woman ever to win an IndyCar Series race (the 2008 Indy Japan 300), she crashed on Lap 68 in her first IndyCar race since 2011 at the Indianapolis Speedway where she chose to end her career.

Patrick, 36, announced in November that she would be retiring this year after competing in two races, the Daytona 500 (NASCAR’s “Super Bowl of stock car racing”) and the Indianapolis 500. She crashed out of both, finishing 35th at Daytona and 30th Sunday.

Patrick joined NASCAR in 2010 after beginning her career in IndyCar racing in 2005 at age 23.

In spite of her disappointment Sunday, we applaud her impact on the sport and its fans, and we wish her well as she moves on in her life.

Patrick told ABC News she plans to focus on growing her clothing line “Warrior” and her wine label, Somnium. She will also become the first woman to host the annual ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards, presented by ABC, formerly ESPN).

While she was not the first woman to drive in the Indianapolis 500 (that was Janet Guthrie in 1977), Patrick became the first female driver to lead during an Indy 500 in her rookie season in 2005, where she finished fourth, surpassing Guthrie, who was ninth in 1977.

Indy 500 fans will remember that Patrick also held the lead in the 2009 race before finishing third, the best finish of any woman. In her first year in the IndyCar Series, Patrick was driving for Rahal Letterman Racing and won the pole position three times to equal Tomas Scheckter’s record for a rookie season. She was named Rookie of the Year for both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series.

The publicity Patrick generated in her first year was a boon to the sport and to the sportswriters and broadcasters who followed her career.

Veteran sports columnist Reggie Hayes was there in 2005 to document Patrick’s first attempt to qualify at the Indianapolis Speedway.

“Indy officials are pulling for Patrick,” Hayes wrote in a column on May 13, 2005. “Nothing would re-energize the race more than having a woman in contention.”

Hayes wrote a few days later that Patrick was racing’s rock star. “Wherever she goes,” he wrote, “cameras and fans follow. Her gender prompts some intrigue. But is that news? She’s the fourth female to qualify for the 500, so there’s no ground broke by joining the field. The difference is that Patrick is the first female driver the fans and media believe might win.”

While she only had one victory in IndyCar and NASCAR racing, her role in proving women can succeed in a sport dominated by men merits our thanks for her sticking with it and giving us all somebody to root for.

Now, who’s the next woman to step up?