(She'll need her shades because the spotlight will be brighter than ever for Patrick)
By Pete Pistone
So the long awaited, much-anticipate announcement about Danica Patrick’s plans to become a full-time NASCAR driver were finally unveiled on Thursday.
And somehow the world kept spinning on its axis.
The news of Patrick’s plans to ditch her Indy Car career in favor of running stock cars did not come as a surprise and in fact the announcement didn’t include many details that weren’t known last week.
Patrick will run a full season in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, where she’s spent parts of the last two years trying to hone her skills.
She’ll also compete in a limited Sprint Cup Series schedule with a car prepared out of the Stewart-Haas stables, a calendar that will reportedly begin with the season’s biggest race the Daytona 500 and include up to 8-10 events. The deal will be a precursor to Patrick’s progression into NASCAR’s top series as a full-time competitor in 2013.
Whether or not she’ll still keep her hand in the Indy Car world with a program that will see Patrick continue to have an opportunity to fulfill her biggest career dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 remains to be seen.
That’s a pretty full plate for any driver especially one who is still learning on the job.
Patrick has made some solid strides in her stock car endeavors since first trying her hand driving a car with a roof in 2010. Under the steady guidance of Tony Eury Sr. and Jr. at the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned JR Motorsports organization, Patrick has slowly but surely learned the nuances of wrestling a 3,400 car around high speed NASCAR ovals and maybe more importantly how to communicate the car’s needs to her crew chief.
Her performance shows improvement nearly every time out particularly when she returns to tracks for a second and third time. Her fourth place finish in Las Vegas back in March, which was the best for a woman in any NASCAR national series, and leading with only a handful of laps remaining at Daytona in July stand out as examples of Patrick’s development.
“You can’t argue the fact that the more she drives here and the more she can be behind the wheel of a stock car the better she gets,” said Jimmie Johnson. “Like any of us it takes time to learn how to drive these cars and I think she’s done a very good job in a relatively short period of time.”
But despite the upward spiral Patrick has been on in recent months, she still has a long way to go before most will consider her a legitimate contender for wins or a championship.
That wont stop the incredibly high expectations Patrick will continue to carry into the next phase of her career.
Patrick transcends auto racing like similar super star personalities do in other sports. You don’t have to understand a thing about NASCAR to know what Danica Patrick does for a living.
While NASCAR is certainly banking on that near worldwide appeal to bring more attention to the sport, along with it comes a level of expectation that Patrick will have to live up to.
Whether it’s fair or not, the hoopla and spotlight that follows Patrick wherever she goes means she’ll have to perform perhaps at an unrealistic pace.
Even most of today’s NASCAR superstars took time to be competitive and become more seasoned before winning regularly. But that’s a luxury Patrick may not be able to enjoy.
"I think she can come here, but I look at (Dario) Franchitti, I look at Tony (Stewart) when he first came over from open wheel, I look at Juan (Pablo Montoya) and they are incredibly talented individuals," said former driver and current television analyst Kyle Petty. "Juan Montoya is probably, car control-wise, one of the most amazing human beings you've seen in a car and he struggled for three years at this level, and she's not Juan Montoya.
"She's not Franchitti and she's not. She's not really shown over there (in Indy Car racing) and won races and done stuff over there numbers-wise. She's just a marketing machine. Let's look at the facts and be blunt about it."
There is no denying Patrick’s ability to promote and her talents as a marketing dream. Even as a part-time NASCAR driver, her souvenir and merchandise sales are among the top tier of the sport. That will only grow as she becomes a regular as will her presence in advertising, television appearances and other sponsorship initiatives on behalf of GoDaddy.com and other corporate partners tied to her star.
None of that is a bad thing. At a time when NASCAR can use a shot in the arm, having one of the world’s most famous personalities come on board in a full-time capacity will no doubt raise the awareness level as well as generate much more exposure for the sport.
Patrick naturally brings both a youth and female demographic NASCAR is sorely missing. She was by far the biggest star in Indy Car racing and hopes her large fan base will follow her to the world of NASCAR.
"I don't know if the fans will continue to follow me, but I hope so,” Patrick said. “Fans followed me for a long time in Indy Car. I hope I don't lose fans who have been awesome supporters of mine and cheered through thick and thin."
The news is finally official. The question now becomes how much thick or thin Patrick will incur behind the wheel of a stock car.
One thing’s for sure – everyone will be watching.
|More NASCAR coverage|