Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patrick To Make It Official

ESPN's Marty Smith reported on Wednesday that IndyCar star Danica Patrick will officially announce her intentions to enter NASCAR full-time next week. Patrick will run the entire Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports next season, while running a handful of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing -- before making the full jump to Cup in 2013.

Frankly, it's about time.

I didn't have an opinion one way or another about whether Patrick should come to NASCAR or stay in the IZOD IndyCar Series -- where she has one career win and is easily the most recognizable name in the series. Her departure will leave IndyCar with some issues (more than it already faces, given the finish to last weekend's race at Loudon, N.H.), but the most important thing here is the fact that she's finally made a decision.

Patrick is the middle of her second season of running a full IndyCar schedule for Andretti Autosport, while running a part-time Nationwide Series schedule in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 7 car. She finished a career-best fourth at Las Vegas in March, and Patrick led several laps in Daytona in July, threatening for the win before being caught in a last-lap wreck and finishing 10th.

I've said before she needs to choose, because jumping back and forth between two completely different race cars throughout a season did her no favors -- in either series. A stock car and an open-wheel car are completely different creatures, and hopping between them can make it hard for Patrick to get a rhythm in either series.

By making her choice, Patrick is removing one of her biggest hurdles to success. She's also making a choice that could improve her career.

Make no mistake: this is not a money move. Patrick is set for life already, and she was going to the bank regardless of where she strapped on a helmet -- you can thank such companies as Motorola and for that. She'll make a mint in NASCAR, especially if she succeeds, but that's not the driving force here.

Obviously, Patrick enjoys running stock cars. She enjoys rubbing fenders and mixing it up on the track -- something she can't do in an IndyCar. She's also not much of a road racer, and with the IndyCar Series migrating more and more toward road and street courses, it's no longer really the place for her.

The Nationwide Series only had three road courses on the schedule this season, and will likely have two or three next season -- leaving plenty of oval-track action for her to experience.

Results are also indisputable; Patrick's 2011 NASCAR experience has been much more successful so far than her 2010 foray. She's clearly more comfortable in a stock car than she was in the beginning, and it'll be interesting to see how she progresses as she gets an entire season under her belt (while also seeing just how much of a grind the NASCAR season is -- it's about twice as long as the IndyCar slate).

And if I'm being honest, the attention for NASCAR will be a win-win. Regardless of how one feels about Patrick as a race car driver, there's little doubt regarding her national appeal and the fact that she draws attention to whatever series in which she's competing. You don't think NASCAR is salivating at the thought of her fighting for a Nationwide Series championship next year?

In the end, this could be a good move for Patrick -- especially since she's willing to spend a full year in the Nationwide Series before making the plunge into the Cup Series. Previous open-wheel drivers to make the transition to NASCAR -- Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, all with far better records than Patrick -- did not make that step, and it showed in their results.

Patrick could be a success in NASCAR. IndyCar without her? Well, that might be a different story.

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