Most drivers would be reluctant to answer one hypothetical question. Not Patrick. Answering question after question about a series she doesn't race in, she obviously has thought in-depth about racing cars with fenders.
And good thing - she faces the most important decision of her racing career this summer. Her IndyCar contract with Andretti Green Racing is up at the end of the season, and this is likely her last best chance to go NASCAR racing. She might not get another opportunity like this one. Truth be told, NASCAR might not, either. She can drive, she can bring sponsors, she can put butts in seats.
But for which racing series will she do those things next season? That is the one unanswerable question in this recurring Silly Season debate. But there are answers to plenty of other questions.
Many observers believe any NASCAR talk on Patrick's part is merely a negotiating ploy to drive up her value in the IndyCar Series. And that's a fair enough position. But when Patrick is asked whether she is willing to go NASCAR racing, she doesn't blink. "Absolutely," she says.
There are, of course, conditions. The most important to Patrick: The car has to be capable of running up front. And she has to be sure she wants to make the move - it won't be an easy decision because of what she would leave behind. "There's nothing like the Indy 500," she says. "I get goose bumps thinking about it." But she knows the Daytona 500 isn't half-bad either - and that even run- of-the-mill NASCAR races are huge events. "The whole arena of it all - you really feel something big is going on," she says.
Would a team hire her because she can drive? Yes. "I think she has a tremendous amount of talent," says Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing. "If she had the right team and the right drivers to help support her, I think she could do really well."
Would a team hire her because she would be attractive to sponsors? Also yes, and with more enthusiasm. "If she can do it on the race track, she would be in the stratosphere in terms of ability to attract really top-rate sponsors," says Geoff Smith, president of Roush Fenway Racing.
Only two drivers - Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - have better name recognition than Patrick, according to the Davie Brown Index, which measures celebrity appeal and awareness for brand managers and marketers. Only those three have better than 50 percent name recognition. Not even Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last three Sprint Cup championships, crests that mark.
Patrick's contract runs through the end of this season. Not long after the Indianapolis 500, Patrick will start fielding offers for 2010. A decision would likely come in mid- to late summer. Assuming she opts to make the jump to NASCAR, she could run a few races at the Nationwide, truck and/or ARCA levels, this fall. But any races this year would be to get used to stock cars, meet her crew chief and team and generate exposure before a full-scale launch; that's how other open-wheel transplants have done it.
The full-scale coming-out party would be next year, almost surely at the Nationwide Series level-not Sprint Cup. And marketers drool at the idea of that coming-out party. It would be huge, probably historically so, certainly at the Nationwide level. Believe this: You will know it when you see it.
Because she would only make the move to drive for a team with top-notch equipment, only four teams will be in serious contention to land Patrick: Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing. The president or owner of each, along with numerous other motorsports experts, say it is not a good idea for Patrick to run full time at the Cup level in 2010. There are sponsorship and performance reasons. "If she could get a best-in-class Nationwide package, it would serve her well," says David Hynes, president of Victory Management Group, a marketing agency heavily involved in NASCAR.
Experts are skittish about rushing Patrick because, in the past few years, several open-wheel drivers have moved to the Sprint Cup Series and failed. All of them had better résumés than Patrick. "You get one audience with the pope," says Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "You get out here and step on yourself in this Cup deal, wreck, take out some people, can't make a race, are just lost, and you're done."
And then there's the issue that could derail a Danica-to-NASCAR deal: Going from IndyCar to Nationwide is a step down - even though it would be the first step toward a step up. "I can't tell you I'd be excited about it," Patrick says. "When you go from one top-tier racing to not a top-tier racing, you've really got to think about that and evaluate your pros and cons. But I would be open to it."
In media circles, Patrick's reputation is similar to Tony Stewart's. Talk to her on a good day, and she provides insightful, funny, thoughtful answers. On a bad day, she storms out of her car intending to visit violence upon the driver who wrecked her. She would do well to emulate Stewart in another way. Before his rookie Cup season in 1999, he turned down offers to go Cup racing because he thought he wasn't ready yet. It's doubtful she would be willing to spend more than a full season in the Nationwide Series. The most likely scenario: Sprint Cup in 2011.
Fans would love her ... and hate her. She's feisty and opinionated and controversial, which is exactly what fans want - except when they don't. The expectations would be massive. "The problem that she has is that she's Danica Patrick," says Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway and the man behind some of NASCAR's most colorful and controversial promotions in recent years. "That's a two-edged sword. The expectation level for her will be so much higher than it will be for Driver X who has the same level of skills and experiences."
Only a championship from Earnhardt Jr., or Patrick winning the Indianapolis 500, would generate as much buzz in American motorsports. "Danica entering NASCAR would be among the biggest stories in the sport in recent memory," says Ken Cohn, vice president of Millsport Motorsports, a marketing agency in Concord, N.C.
This is not lost on Patrick. She says one of her worries about going to NASCAR is, "the exposure level from a performance standpoint." The short-term exposure would be huge for NASCAR, but once the novelty wore off, then what? The sport already claims millions of female fans. Surely that number would grow, but would it balloon?
It would be a huge risk. Patrick is a moderately successful IndyCar driver. She almost certainly would struggle initially in stock cars because the vehicles are so different. Sam Hornish won an Indy 500 and three IRL championships but in a season-plus in stock cars has struggled, although there have been signs of improvement of late. "They have four tires, a steering wheel and an engine. That's basically the only similarities," he says. Stewart is a former open-wheel racer who has won 33 races and two Sprint Cup championships since moving to NASCAR, but he's more exception than rule.
A NASCAR race and season require more strength and endurance than an IndyCar race and season. There are twice as many races, the races are much longer, and the cars are more than twice as heavy as Indy cars. And looking at Patrick - she's 5-foot nothing, weighs 100-nothing - this would seem like a relevant issue. Then you shake hands with her ... and she breaks your fingers ("a vise grip," Gossage says) and pulls your arm off. "I would say to her, 'I wouldn't try it if I were you,- says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion who now calls races on Fox. "These stock cars are pretty brutal, they're hot, they're hard to handle. She's used to sitting out there in all that fresh air. Now you've got to sit behind an 850-horsepower monster. I'd say the monster would win." "She's got unbelievable physical stamina. She's an incredible athlete," says Smith, Roush Fenway Racing's president. "She's in better shape than 80 percent of the Cup drivers."
She would need mental toughness more than physical toughness; the season is a grind already, even more so considering the microscope she'd be under. Drivers say Patrick would not be accorded any special treatment, pro or con. There of course would be no hazing, nobody would bump her for no reason, there would be no jealousy, nobody would give her a hard time, ever! "I think she'd be treated just like any other driver," says driver Carl Edwards. "She's got her accomplishments and her talents. She'd just have to come here and learn this. ... Let me take that back. She wouldn't be treated like any other driver. Everybody would want to get a peek at her."
Especially if ... "Her personality, her sellability, her whole flair has the ability to attract big sponsors," says Kurt Busch, 2004 Cup champion and driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge. "It could be female sponsors. We could have the Victoria Secret Ford. I think all NASCAR fans would go, 'Victoria Secret, I've got to go support this."' Believe this: You will know it when you see it.
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