Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Danica to NASCAR? Not So Fast, My Friend

With IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick in the final year of her contract with Andretti-Green Racing, speculation of her jump to NASCAR has begun anew -- strengthened, perhaps, by a family feud that might yet leave IRL founder Tony George out as chairman of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The thinking goes as such: the IndyCar Series, already on the American sporting fringe, can't afford such a shake-up within its higher ranks. There are those who figure such a move could leave the IRL on shaky ground, and Patrick could bolt to NASCAR seeking a more stable sanctioning body.

Never mind Patrick's departure would have a potentially greater impact than George's; Patrick is by far the series' most popular and marketable figure. Helio Castroneves is the only other IRL driver with crossover appeal, thanks to his stint on Dancing With the Stars, and the last thing the IndyCar Series needs is one of its hottest commodities defecting to stock cars.

Jimmie Johnson, who's won the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles and dominated last weekend's race at Dover, made comments over the last couple weeks suggesting Patrick would struggle in NASCAR, unless she spent significant time in the lower levels of the sport. If Patrick jumped straight into a Cup car, Johnson reasoned, she would struggle -- but if she spent a year or two in the Camping World Truck Series or the Nationwide Series, learning how to drive the heavier, less technologically-dependent machines , then she'd have a greater chance at success.

Nothing Johnson said was wrong; his analysis was a legitimate criticism -- one with which I'm sure guys like Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. would agree. Both drivers -- who, unlike Patrick, won IndyCar Series championships -- struggled mightily when they first jumped to NASCAR, trying to learn on the fly how to handle the Sprint Cup cars. Franchitti found himself back in IndyCar after funding for his Cup ride dried up, while it's taken Hornish almost two full seasons to show what he might be capable of in an underfunded Penske Racing effort.

Granted, neither driver slid into one of the prime rides of the series; you didn't see Franchitti sliding into a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, or Hornish climbing aboard one of Jack Roush's Fords. Patrick has said that were she to make the jump to NASCAR, she'd expect to climb into one such ride -- never mind the fact that she drives for one of the IRL's best teams in Andretti-Green ... and has one win to her name.

So an argument could be made that she wouldn't deserve such a chance.

To be fair, Patrick has four straight top-5 finishes, including a third-place effort in this year's Indianapolis 500. With a season-worst finish of 19th in the season opener thanks to wreck not of her doing, Patrick sits fourth in the point standings, 22 behind leader and defending series champion Scott Dixon. Though her AGR team is behind the Penske and Ganassi stables, Patrick can and probably will win a race this season.

But don't look for Roush or Hendrick or Joe Gibbs to come calling with a prime spot open for her in the Cup Series. Patrick has expressed reluctance to cut her teeth in the Nationwide Series, though she admitted she would do that if necessary. Imagine the publicity that would generate; the Nationwide Series is struggling to find an identity right now, trying to groom young stars while using the Cup drivers to get fans in the stands. With Patrick in the series and competitive, the Nationwide Series would get a boost in publicity, without the headache of a Cup regular taking a promising youngster's slot.

Plus, can you imagine a potential rivalry between Patrick and Kyle Busch? I'm chuckling just thinking about it.

At the end of the day, though, I think staying in the IndyCar Series might be the best thing for her. There, she has the best chance to be competitive. She can contend for race wins and possibly even championships -- particularly if she re-signs with AGR, or somehow winds up at Penske or Ganassi. If Patrick is consistently competitive and ever wins an IndyCar Series title -- or even the Indianapolis 500 -- then she could catapult the IndyCar Series to the mainstream once more. It won't overtake NASCAR as America's top motorsport, but a successful Patrick can only help.

I don't think a move to NASCAR would benefit her, because it hasn't truly benefitted any other open-wheeler aside from Tony Stewart (who did it so long ago, and after winning back-to-back IRL championships, I'm not even sure that comparison has merit).

Not only that, but the IndyCar Series needs her. That league is on the fringe as it is, especially this year with most of its races on Versus instead of the ESPN/ABC brand. To lose Patrick would be to lose undoubtedly the sport's biggest star, and that's a blow from which I'm not sure the IndyCar Series could recover.

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