blank 06/02/11 10:52AM Chicagoland Speedway, Danica Patrick, NASCAR

Time is right for Danica to make the NASCAR leap


By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
June 01, 2011 12:36 PM, EDT
   

Danica Patrick returns to NASCAR this weekend, for a race at Chicagoland Speedway that's part of her limited schedule on the Nationwide Series. It's been 11 weeks since we last saw Patrick in a stock car, at Bristol in March. It will be another month before we see her again, on the high banks at Daytona. With much of her IndyCar schedule clustered in the spring and summer, it will be November before we see her run consecutive Nationwide events in JR Motorsports' No. 7 car.

Which is too bad, because as anyone who witnessed Patrick's historic fourth-place run at Las Vegas on March 5 can attest, she's clearly figuring this stock-car thing out. No question, she still has her hiccups -- her first start at Bristol, for example, which proved a rude awakening -- but Vegas was no fluke. Her lap-after-lap duel with Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne for position inside the top 10 offered further hints of her potential, at least on the kind of intermediate tracks that dominate the circuit. Nearly three months later, we finally get to see if she can build on it.

Danica Patrick (Getty Images)
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I want to point out that she hasn't talked to me about it. She hasn't told me what she wants to do. ... But my guess is, I expect to see her in NASCAR.

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-- BOB PARSONS, GoDaddy.com

* Video: Fourth at Vegas | Crash at Bristol | Hangs with Knaus

That's the great flaw in Patrick's limited NASCAR schedule, which undermines her ability and limits her chances of stock-car success more than anything else. She did 13 races last season and is slated for 12 this year, with wide gaps to accommodate the Indianapolis 500 and other open-wheel events. If Patrick is just dabbling in NASCAR, if she just wants to have some fun in a stock car and has no real intention of one day competing for race wins, then a partial slate is just fine. The problem is, Patrick is a competitor to the core. She can get terribly upset with herself even in events where she's supposed to be learning, races where she supposedly has relatively low expectations. She wants to win.

And if she wants to win in NASCAR, there's only one real option -- commit. Nobody, not owners or drivers, succeeds in NASCAR by making it a part-time endeavor. Drivers who had hoped to one day compete in or win the Indianapolis 500 ultimately gave it up because of the commitments NASCAR demands. The owners who set the standard are those who are on the scene every weekend, overseeing their race operations just as they would any other business. At its heart NASCAR is all about consistency, about one Saturday or Sunday afternoon building into the next, and it's very difficult to find that going weeks or even months between starts.

"I think she wants to have more success, and doing it all the time would be a good move," JR Motorsports co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said recently. Maybe Patrick realizes this as well, given the speculation that's suddenly ramped up surrounding her 2012 plans, and perhaps a full NASCAR campaign. In media sessions at Indianapolis last week, Patrick said nothing had been decided upon for next season. But at least one member of Danica's camp feels a move to stock cars is inevitable. And that member is a big daddy who writes big checks.

"I want to point out that she hasn't talked to me about it. She hasn't told me what she wants to do," said Bob Parsons, founder and chairman of GoDaddy.com, the company that backs Patrick's race cars. "That's just not her style. One of the reasons why she and I get along so good is, we stay out of each other's hair. I let her manage her business, she lets me manage mine. But my guess is, I expect to see her in NASCAR."

Granted, Parsons has a vested interest here -- his company stands to benefit from the increased number of eyeballs on Patrick's car, which carries the GoDaddy logo in most events. Still, a Patrick-to-NASCAR move works on many levels. "NASCAR when it comes to racing, automobile racing right now, is where the excitement's at," Parsons said. "It's broadcast on major channels. It's got the hugest following .... It's where the money is, and she loves it. To me, when you put all that together, show me -- what's the downside?"

The downside may very well be the Indianapolis 500, which Patrick last week called "my favorite race in the world." But this year's winner, Dan Wheldon, proved it can be won by a driver not competing in the full IndyCar schedule. In fact, the 500 was Wheldon's only IndyCar start to date. "I would think that if Danica wants to, she'll be able to run in the Indy 500 every year and get a little hall pass from NASCAR," Parsons said. "I think if she would come over to Indy and win the 500, that would be great for NASCAR."

Asked if he had input in Patrick's ultimate decision, Parsons said, "We have input in that we stroke the check." A Baltimore native and former Marine who isn't shy about sharing his opinions, Parsons is among Patrick's most fierce advocates, extolling everything from her driving talent to her marketing potential to her appearance. "I defy you to find me a more beautiful woman," he said. But he's also a self-made millionaire who knows that NASCAR and its superior television presence could benefit not only Patrick, but his business as well.

"Without a doubt," he said. "First of all, you've got IndyCar, for reasons that to this day I'm still trying to figuring out, they moved the television [contract] from ESPN to Versus. I'll tell you what, when they did that, our advertising response and viewership just fell off the cliff. We took it right in the shorts. For that reason alone [NASCAR] has them beat. ... You get a better viewership. To that, you add to the fact that your fan base is ... four or six times more than what IndyCar is. That alone is great. Plus, NASCAR fans, when they like the driver, they support the sponsor, baby, and that's pretty cool."

It all makes too much sense. Patrick has a one-year option remaining on her contract with her current IndyCar team, Andretti Autosport, which in recent years has fallen a step behind the Penske and Ganassi juggernauts that dominate the open-wheel circuit. Should she move into NASCAR full time with her current operation, she'll be competing for a JR Motorsports team aligned with Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful organization in the sport today. In January she became a spokesperson for Nationwide Insurance, the company that also happens to back NASCAR's No. 2 series.

Nationwide, though, does not publicly state a preference. "Just like many other racing fans, we're looking forward to hearing what decision she'll make that's best for her career," said Jennifer Hanley, senior vice president for Nationwide Insurance. "She has been a tremendous partner and spokesperson for us, our ads featuring Danica and Dale Jr. continue to generate great results, and we'll support her decision either way."

Patrick also seems to enjoy the more physical nature of stock-car racing. "She likes to mix it up. She understands throwing fenders, trading paint," Parsons said. And most importantly, her greatest strides behind the wheel in NASCAR have come in those stints where she's driving the Nationwide car in consecutive weeks. Her first lead-lap finish came last season at Homestead, at the end of five straight weeks in the No. 7. Her best result -- the best result by any female driver in a NASCAR national-series race -- came at Las Vegas, her third consecutive event to start this year. Who knows what she might be capable of if she were in the car full time.

"I suppose anything is possible," Patrick told reporters last week at Indianapolis, when asked if it would be her last Indy 500. Given the flashes we've seen thus far, even in a part-time schedule and in a car she has to reacclimatize herself to every few weeks, so much seems possible for Patrick in NASCAR. But to achieve it, she'll have to fully commit herself first. It's time for Danica Patrick to pull her toe out of the NASCAR waters, and jump in with a huge splash.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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Speculation ramps up about Patrick's NASCAR future
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