Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Danica Mania!

I've written here before about my opinion regarding Danica Patrick coming over to NASCAR. For those too lazy to click the link -- or have already read that piece -- the gist is thus: IndyCar needs Patrick, and her transition to stock cars would probably take a lot longer than her higher-ups might want.

In short, she was better off staying where she was.

But Patrick made the move anyway, announcing she would be running a partial schedule in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this coming season for JR Motorsports. While her debut is expected to come in the season's second race at Auto Club Speedway, there's a chance she could make her debut at the season opener at Daytona.

Patrick will also run the ARCA race at Daytona on Feb. 6.

Patrick will run in the Nationwide Series on top of her IndyCar schedule; she renewed with Andretti Motorsport for three more years during the offseason. The IndyCar schedule is nowhere near as long as NASCAR's, and the open-wheel series doesn't run every week, so from a time and logistics standpoint, she could make it work.

Patrick will run some Nationwide races before the start of the IndyCar season in March, skip NASCAR in May while she gears up for the Indianapolis 500, run a few races during IndyCar off weeks, and round out her NASCAR schedule after IndyCar wraps up in October. She'll be a busy driver, but it's really not all that different from Sprint Cup drivers who hop on private jets to run Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series races at other venues.

My biggest concern regarding this move is this: if Patrick spends the year jumping back and forth between her IndyCar and her stock car, there's a chance she could struggle in both. Patrick has progressively improved each year she's been in IndyCar, even though she's only won one race in her career (Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in 2008). She finished a career-best fifth in the standings last season and came in a career-best third in the Indy 500.

And let's face it: if you didn't drive for Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske last year, you probably weren't going to win.

But each car requires a different feel, because they're so different aerodynamically and in terms of raw speed. IndyCars are much faster and lighter, while the heavier stock cars rely more on mechanical handling because of their relative areodynamic deficiencies. Patrick already has a learning curve coming up in getting herself acclimated to a stock car; how will she balance that with her IndyCar ride?

Maybe that's where scheduling comes in, with the bulk of her NASCAR races coming before and after the IndyCar season.

A lot of pundits will compare Patrick to the likes of Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti -- saying she's doomed to fail in NASCAR because the other three haven't exactly set the stock-car world on fire after putting together far better open-wheel resumes than hers. On the surface, it's a fair argument, but it is, in fact, misguided.

Hornish never cut his teeth in the Nationwide Series before hopping into a Cup car. The same could be said of Franchitti and Montoya; sure, they ran Nationwide races, but it was while they were also learning Cup cars. Franchitti was also sidelined by a broken ankle at Talladega and a loss of sponsorship dollars.

Look at Hornish and Montoya; they've been driving stock cars for three years. Hornish is starting to come into his own, with several strong runs this past season, while Montoya made the Chase in seemingly inferior equipment and easily could've won a few races.

Patrick is not jumping into a Cup car; she's biding her time with ARCA and the Nationwide Series, aware that she needs to learn how to handle a stock car and how to run a stock car race (which in the Sprint Cup Series is far longer than the vast majority of IndyCar races). There's a learning curve to running stock cars, and it appears she understands that. It says a lot that someone of her star power is willing to climb up through the minor leagues.

What I'd be interested to see is how Patrick can manage her personality; she's a fierce competitor who doesn't take any crap from other drivers, and she comes from a series where you don't really see a lot of beating and banging. The first time someone leans on her or crumples one of her fenders, how does Patrick handle that?

I'd love to make a prediction regarding Patrick's performance this year, but there's really no telling. She's aligned herself with one of the better teams in the series; JR Motorsports is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, and the team finished third in the Nationwide Series point standings this past season with the No. 88 car.

If nothing else, it should be entertaining; this could be the shot in the arm the series needs. But I want Patrick to be careful, and I want her not to get ahead of herself. She's got the right mindset right now, but I want her to keep that mindset once the season starts and she struggles -- which I think she will initially.

After that? There's no telling.