Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, April 21, 2008

NASCAR's Off-Week = Change of Pace

Step in the Right Direction

It’s been a pretty good year so far for the IndyCar Series. First, the season starts with the IRL announcing a reunification deal with Champ Car (formerly CART). The heavily-publicized split in 1995 led to open-wheel racing’s decline in America, which coincided with NASCAR’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade-plus.

So putting the two open-wheel leagues back together was a necessity if the sport was ever to be taken seriously on the national sports landscape again.

Then, this past weekend, media darling Danica Patrick picked up her first career win, taking the IRL race at Twin Motegi Japan. She became the first female winner in major American motorsports history (not counting drag racing here), and considering she was already the IRL’s most popular driver, the win can only be a good thing for the series.

Will open-wheel racing surpass NASCAR in terms of national popularity? Highly doubtful, but the unification and Patrick’s success – if continued – can only serve to help the sport.

For the longest time, CART had the big-name open-wheel drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya, Patrick Carpantier, Jacques Villeneuve, Jimmy Vasser, Paul Tracy … they were all CART guys, which made the IRL having the Indianapolis 500 somewhat irrelevant for a while. And even when the big names did return to Indy, NASCAR and its Memorial Day classic, the Coca-Cola 600, had already surpassed it.

For the last decade, the Coca-Cola 600 consistently drew better ratings than the Indy 500. Look for that to continue, but the fact remains … open-wheel racing will be better off in the long run.

Patrick, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal (19-year-old son of open-wheel champion Buddy Rahal) are the signal of things to come in open-wheel racing, and assuming the brass doesn’t get stupid and screw things up again, American open-wheel racing could be staring at a prolonged period of relevance again.

Win is a Win

There’s just no pleasing some people as far as Danica Patrick is concerned.

For three years, critics wondered aloud when – or if – Patrick would win her first race. When she won the Japan Indy 300 this past weekend, many of the same critics said she didn’t deserve the victory, as if winning a race on fuel mileage negates a win.

If Jimmie Johnson’s win at Phoenix two weekends ago stands, so should Patrick’s checkered flag.
Fuel mileage is a strategy that sometimes rears its ugly head in racing; fans may not like it, but it’s there. Do you think Greg Biffle would give back his Daytona Pepsi 400 victory because he did it on fuel mileage? Or Casey Mears, who won the Coca-Cola 600 the same way last year?

Of course not. So why should Patrick do the same?

When Patrick led laps and finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, I knew it would only be a matter of time before she won a race. And her move before last season to Andretti-Green Racing only reinforced that belief – Patrick’s move to AGR could be compared to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s move this year to Hendrick Motorsports – the series’ biggest star moving to the most dominant team on the circuit.

If Patrick can continue her success and win another race or two this season – particularly if one of those is the Indy 500 – then the IRL is in fantastic shape. The national sports consciousness doesn’t pay as much attention to open-wheel racing as it used to, but when Patrick is running well and finding success, the eyes do turn her – and the series’ – way.

The historical ramifications of Patrick’s win are obvious, but I prefer to think about what it might mean for the IRL’s overall health in the future. Obviously, if Patrick stays and keeps winning, the IRL is in good shape. But if she wins a few more races and then follows Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. to NASCAR, then that’s a big blow to open-wheel racing.

The newly-unified IndyCar Series needs to keep its stars, and there’s no star bigger than Danica Patrick.

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