NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR a Tough Decision for Danica Patrick

Despite speculation that IndyCar Series darling Danica Patrick would reveal her plans for next season this week, it seems any such announcement is now on hold until October. Patrick, who is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing (AGR), has been rumored to be looking in three different directions in deciding which career path is in her best interest moving forward. Most believe a jump to Formula 1 or even signing with a top-notch IndyCar team is the most likely scenario. However, she has made herself visible around NASCAR garages and has signed a management firm with close ties to the organization – a sure sign a transition to stock cars is still very much a possibility.

Of course, it’s not the first time that the rumor mill has worked overtime on whether Patrick really would consider leaving the open-wheel ranks for the radically different world of NASCAR racing. In 2006, as the 27-year-old Patrick neared the end of her contract with Rahal Letterman Racing, similar assumptions regarding her future surfaced as free agency loomed. And while Patrick didn’t fuel the rumors of a switch, she was at least willing to fan the flames before her ultimate decision to sign with AGR.

As she did three years ago, Patrick is keeping her options open once again. Smart money should stay on the sidelines on any bet concerning where she will be competing next season; but for her, NASCAR might be a gamble worth taking. In saying that, I understand it is no secret that open-wheel drivers with more impressive resumes have attempted to break into America’s No. 1 racing series, only to fail. Yet the benefits for Patrick, should she be successful, far exceed anything those that have went before her could have imagined.

“NASCAR has so many viewers and so many partners,” she stated earlier this week. “There are lots of options [for drivers] inside and outside the car. And it looks like fun. Oval racing always is fun. It’s kind of like the Indy 500 event weekend [each race].”

Make no mistake about it, Patrick’s decision will very much be a business decision. If nothing else, she is very cognizant of the financial side of racing – a fact that was evident to anyone that watched this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500 and its gaudy number of commercials featuring the attractive driver.

“The most important thing is to put myself in a situation where I can win as many races as possible and run up front and be competitive,” she said of her next move. “There’s also the brand side. Just being able to make the most of it as an athlete and endorser of products by gaining exposure, and in due time, exploring things outside of racing.”

Hands down, NASCAR, with its large national television audience, is the place to be for a driver as ambitious as Patrick seems to be to gain that greater exposure. And as far as endorsements are concerned, there is no other venue in American Motorsports with more ties to the corporate world than NASCAR. Indeed, corporate partnerships have paid handsomely for drivers with far less national appeal and recognition than Patrick has to offer.

Should she find her way to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, sports marketing folks are tossing around numbers like $50 million in new sponsorship money flowing into and around Patrick and the sport. They also predict as much as a 10% boost in television ratings, an instant band-aid for a sport that’s off 13-15% in that department so far this year. At first glance, those two numbers alone indicate a change would be a sure-fire, win-win situation for all concerned.

So, what’s the catch? Patrick has to not only make it to the Sprint Cup Series, but be competitive as well. Therein is where the gamble begins. Can she drive the much heavier and less stable full-fendered race cars?

Undoubtedly, there are other fairly lucrative deals in Patrick’s present discipline of racing available to her, deals that probably are more generous than her all-in-all moderately successful IRL career warrants. Striking an agreement with an IndyCar team would be a safe move on Patrick’s part, assuring her a ride that she will at least be able to perform adequately in. The same might be said concerning a switch to F1. Though the level of competition in the international auto racing series is widely considered to be greater than that of the IRL, she does have a ton of experience in cars that would be far easier to adapt to than a 3,400-pound Sprint Cup vehicle.

Her capability of making that switch athletically, of course, is what makes things a little sticky when it comes to making this decision. Based strictly on “…options inside and outside the car,” and “…gaining exposure,” NASCAR seems like a sure bet to land one of the most popular and recognized American drivers out there… but that’s only half the battle. Once settled in with a top-notch stock car ride, she would also need to compete at a high level and contend for wins. And that is something no one, not even Patrick, can presently say with any certainty is possible.

For Patrick to hope to have any degree of success in NASCAR, she would first have to take a step back before she can move forward. No one gives serious consideration to the notion of Patrick sliding into a competitive Sprint Cup ride in 2010. Instead, she will need a lot of “seat time” in the minors before hoping to tackle the big boys of Sprint Cup racing. Heck, two-time Sprint Cup champion and current points leader Tony Stewart knew that he could not rest on his 1997 IRL championship laurels and make a jump directly to Sprint Cup. Ditto for Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IRL champ and the 2006 Indy 500 winner. Like Stewart, he spent some time in primarily the Nationwide Series before testing the waters of Sprint Cup.

Juan Pablo Montoya, former CART champion, Indy 500 winner and F1 ace, only raced a handful of lower division races before making his debut in the Sprint Cup Series in 2006. Much like Hornish Jr., his learning curve has been trying to say the least – he has only just recently showed the ability to consistently compete amongst the leaders after nearly three years behind the wheel in NASCAR.

Then, of course, there are open-wheel standouts Scott Speed (F1) with a year of primarily ARCA and Camping World Truck Series experience, and AJ Allmendinger (CART/CCWS) who had very little seat time in full-size racecars before being thrown into the Sprint Cup fire. Neither of which has convinced the jury yet that they will have long careers in the Sprint Cup Series, although both continue to improve.

So, in a nutshell not even the best of the open-wheelers find that being successful in NASCAR’s top division is easy. Others, like Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti, found it impossible. Considering Patrick is not the best open-wheeler to ever come down the pike and seek glory in NASCAR, that’s something to take under consideration. Is she good enough to become a Cup frontrunner? Does she have the fortitude and desire to step out of the limelight she now enjoys long enough to learn to compete NASCAR style? These are questions she will have to ponder when making her decision.

The carrot at the end of the stick for Patrick is that if she is successful and becomes a contender in the nation’s most popular form of motorsports, she could achieve more wealth and fame than even she thought possible. The gamble here is the unknown. Should she fail, would she be able to return to IRL undamaged and with her popularity still intact?

Put into that perspective, the options here couldn’t be more different. The safe bet would be for Patrick to continue to get all there is to get from the fame the IndyCar Series provides her. The longshot is to attempt to conquer the world of stock car racing and gain untold legions of new fans and riches.

Considering the risks involved, you can’t really blame Patrick for taking her time and fully weighing her options – there’s a lot riding on this decision. However, for me, with nothing more than my opinion at stake… I say, “Bring it on over and let’s see what you have, Danica!”

It could be fun.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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