If the rumors are to be believed, and there is no reason to believe that they should not, Danica Patrick, the darling of the IndyCar Series, is ready to test the waters in NASCAR. The questions that remain at this point are simply when, where and with whom the only female in history to win an IndyCar event will land for her apprenticeship in stock car racing.
But there’s a second, more pertinent question, as well that no one is talking about: Is NASCAR itself ready for “Danica-mania?”
What does seem fairly clear is that Danica is not ready to chuck her day job as an IndyCar driver quite yet, pursuing a new career in NASCAR slowly with possible starts in ARCA, the Camping World Truck Series and later the Nationwide Series before considering the gigantic jump to Sprint Cup. Armed with sponsorship, Patrick should be able have no problems finding owners within any of those divisions, and it is being reported that Kevin Harvick, Inc. is willing and able to integrate her into its successful Truck Series program. The Dale Earnhardt Jr./Rick Hendrick partnership of JR Motorsports no doubt would also be willing to accommodate the IndyCar Series’ most recognizable driver should she be in need of a Nationwide Series seat.
Of course, Patrick coming to NASCAR-talk is nothing new, and has been an experiment that I have wholeheartedly endorsed and invited. Patrick has absolutely nothing to lose in attempting a move to the nation’s most popular and profitable motorsports series – and she knows it. Should the 28-year-old fail, she will still have her open-wheel career as long as she can be semi-competitive and remain a fan draw. However, should this woman succeed and become a viable competitor at the Sprint Cup level, any fame and fortune Patrick has made up to now will pale in comparison to what she would gain in NASCAR.
Two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who seems to be the go-to-guy for information concerning Danica’s move to NASCAR, believes that her motives are deeper than just financial. Said Stewart, who is the only credible source confirming that Danica is, in fact, working towards a career in NASCAR: “She’s looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do. It looks like fun. It looks like a lot of work, but it looks like fun. She doesn’t have some misguided idea that it’s going to be easy doing it. She wants to do it the right way. She has the intention of doing everything right.”
OK, maybe a race schedule about twice as long and wheeling racecars about twice as large looks like fun to Patrick, but don’t for one minute believe that this woman doesn’t understand the move could also further fatten her checking account! In a Frontstretch Turn 5 article published in mid-June, NASCAR: A Tough Decision For Danica, it was pointed out clearly that any decision to take on NASCAR would be greatly based on how it would benefit her financially. That article provided the following Danica Patrick quotes:
“NASCAR has so many viewers and so many partners. 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.]”
Patrick continued, “The most important thing is to put myself in a situation where I can win as many races as possible, run up front, and be competitive. 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.”
Clearly, for Danica racing might be racing, but… it’s a business for her as well!
And how Danica is conducting her business and developing her “brand” is a question that NASCAR and its fans will have to decide whether they’re ready for. Never before has this series, with its short list of females that have competed at the sanctioning body’s highest level, ever experienced a lady with the fire and temper that Danica has at times exhibited during her IRL career. Likewise, no driver, male or female, has so blatantly marketed his or her sexuality like the petite and attractive Patrick.
More than once Patrick, regardless of her finishing position in a race, has garnered the largest share of publicity after altercations with fellow drivers. Perhaps her most memorable incident actually happened following a practice session, with her temper boiling over at Mid-Ohio towards fellow female driver Milka Duno in the pits. During that public display of anger, a simple disagreement turned into a shrill yelling match between the two women as well as full-fledged entertainment for sports broadcasts nationwide. No punches were exchanged in last July’s incident, but Milka did make a couple of futile attempts to snap a towel at Patrick’s face in a YouTube clip viewed by over half a million.
Perhaps stock car racing and NASCAR could survive and even thrive in a “catfight” between Danica and a fellow female competitor (if there was one), but the fiery driver does not limit her challenging and confrontational antics to those of her own gender. In June of 2007, Danica was brazen enough to confront 2005 IndyCar Series champion and Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon following an on-track incident and got physical, grabbing and shoving her rival in the process. Wheldon, to his credit, did not retaliate physically.
Then, too, there was the infamous “High Noon” stroll down pit lane at Indianapolis during last year’s 500 after tangling with Ryan Briscoe in a pit-road incident. The visibly angry Patrick appeared ready for battle with the Penske driver; however, IndyCar officials ultimately prevented her from entering Briscoe’s pit area before any confrontation could occur. Still, Patrick’s pit road display remains THE story of the 2008 Indianapolis 500.
So far, Patrick has been able to get away with her temper tantrums. But would the result be the same should she compete in NASCAR? Not unlike the IndyCar Series, tempers do from time to time turn physical in stock car racing – but rarely does either driver allow another to manhandle them without defending themselves. So should Danica tee-off on a fellow competitor in NASCAR, does that driver still have the unwritten physical right to defend himself… or should Ms. Patrick be exempt from retribution?
The question may seem trite and insignificant, but it is one that every driver, knowing Patrick’s past history, should consider. It is not a situation that they have probably had to contemplate in their career, yet with a brazen, confident and successful woman in the lineup, suddenly their world could change in an instant. Just imagine, if you will, Danica attempting to manhandle a short-fused driver such as Kevin Harvick. Would such a driver be out of line to physically react, or would they be best advised to shirk away from the confrontation? Better yet, would their temper allow them to even make that decision?
A more problematic situation confronting NASCAR should Patrick become a visible part of the sports scene is also the direction her “branding” is taking. Entering a sport known for hawking its family values, it seems that Patrick has determined to date that she should sell “sexiness” as part of her national marketing appeal. Indeed, those that have seen her GoDaddy commercials could not have missed the sexually suggestive tone. In fact, the latest rumor has the 5’ 2” Patrick posing nude for the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine (no doubt “tastefully” done). The driver, of course, is already no stranger to such racy photographs, gracing the pages of last year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
Nude photos in NASCAR? How is that going to jive with a sport that embraces, Mom, apple pie and pre-race prayers?
We don’t yet know the answer, but it’s all part of the overall impact this move could bring in the coming weeks and months. At least there’s one thing we can say for sure; should Danica prove capable of competing in the Sprint Cup Series, things will be interesting… to say the least.
And that’s my view from turn 5.