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Voice of Vito: Danica Patrick, NASCAR & IndyCar, Motorsports’ Torrid Love Triangle Heats Up

Ah, the torrid love triangle. It is the thing of tawdry soap operas, trashy romance novels, and maybe even the topic of water cooler conversation involving your co-workers. Now, coming to a racetrack near you, it is the recurring theme and headline of many a motorsports article. This one is no different, for even I have succumbed to the drama gripping the two top series in American racing.

No doubt, the trio has made one heck of a movie trailer this year: “Danica Patrick, the IndyCar Series, and NASCAR.” Heading soon to a theater near you, it’s the all-consuming romance that threatens to tear each racing series apart.

In one corner, you have the IndyCar Series, Danica’s adoring spouse of sorts that provided her an opportunity to become the most successful female in modern day motorsports (Angelle Sampey, Ashley Force and Shirley Muldowney fans, please restrain the rocks, bottles and angry letters). With ratings dipping and the future in the balance, it has all but bet the bank on retaining her services to help keep the series afloat. They really are pulling out all the stops at this point, playing to the lowest common denominator in their most recent ads touting their “Sexier Drivers.”

I am going to go out on a limb here and say they’re not referring to Dan Wheldon in his weird white sunglasses and gigantic, blindingly white teeth that can be seen from space. But you never know….

On the other side of this romp is NASCAR, luring her with the indecent proposal that promises money, fame, and more exposure than even one of her magazine photo shoots could ever hope to generate, giving renewed interest to a series that once seemed unstoppable but has stalled as of late. Yet even saying that feels a bit melodramatic despite a growing list of problems, as NASCAR’s status as a national sport is easily secured compared to the troubled IRL. After all, with the unveiling of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte this week, one thing is certain – they’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of business for over 60 years now.

At least, until recently.

This year, the sport’s been dealing with declining television ratings, sparsely filled stands that you could fire a shotgun through (though that is strongly discouraged), and a legion of dissatisfied fans who, if you read any number of online blogs, forums or letters to racing editors across the nation, is in a mood somewhere between the ruckus being raised at Town Hall healthcare debates and an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks. But if there is one personality who could help rekindle the interest and attention NASCAR has seemed to lose lately, it might just be Patrick, holding the key to one demographic the sport would love to unlock: successful and attractive women behind the wheel.

While on the surface, that sounds like a promising idea – say, along the same lines as the Federal Government assuming control of two-thirds of the U.S. auto industry – it also might be smart to stop and think for a minute. Are these emotions anything more than a passing infatuation, misplaced feelings, trying to fill the void of something that has been missing for quite sometime?

Let’s try and figure that out. The first question often raised is simple: just what series would she compete in? Originally, Danica’s preference was rumored to be a Sprint Cup car right off the bat, one she would likely consider a lateral move career-wise. Jack Roush, the first owner who extended her an open invitation, wanted to pump the brakes on that notion, instead favoring the old “A-B-C” racing route: ARCA, Busch, and then Cup for the open-wheel convert.

Yet while the Busch Series has morphed into the Nationwide Series, so apparently have Patrick’s feelings towards the path to the promised land of the most competitive and popular form of auto racing in North America. After spending time with fellow former open-wheel driver Tony Stewart and heeding his sage advice, she seems open to the path through the Truck Series and Nationwide ranks before subjecting herself to the under-the-microscope scrutiny that would no doubt follow her to the Sprint Cup Series.

More than likely, the Nationwide Series will end up her new home, with teams bidding for her services almost universally recommending it over the Camping World Trucks. It’s an invitation to a division much-maligned and also misunderstood, begging for an infusion of fresh talent.

Any day now, it seems destined to show up with an earring or that new ‘do favored by guys who wear skinny jeans and hate their fathers, with hair smeared across their face.

Getting back on topic, it’s a racing series in desperate need of an identity, one that’s about to get a makeover that promises to get things back on the right track, regardless of whether or not Danica joins the fray. No, this stuff isn’t just wishful thinking on my part; there is actual evidence of upcoming changes to support my outrageous claim. The Nationwide Series is about to unveil its own version of the CoT in 2010, which, to make a long story short, will undo many of the ills of the current Sprint Cup CoT (as well as the current twisted, stock car-on-acid shape that is fielded today) producing some semblance of competition in its wake.

During a recent test session of the Nationwide CoT, the car drew rave reviews from all involved, and seems to have leveled the playing field so much that even Morgan Shepherd, who when speaking to our own Bryan Davis Keith remarked, “It’s 100 times better than the Cup car. I tested it at Richmond [in] one of Johnny Davis’s cars and we were second quickest. It [bridged] the gap between the high-dollar teams.”

That likely means Patrick could be instantly competitive no matter where she lands, (although judging by the teams she has talked to, that shouldn’t be a problem). But even if she struggles off the bat, the increased visibility from her presence alone of what used to be the stepping stone to Sprint Cup would do wonders to save what otherwise is a series that simply doesn’t make much sense anymore. The combination of star power in star cars could be just what the doctor ordered – at least on Saturdays. The Nationwide CoT may prove to be so successful that it is eventually homogenized as a Cup car, and should Patrick compete in Nationwide and gain traction in fendered vehicles, the series whose luminaries include the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte may be able to claim one of the biggest names in racing as one of its alumni.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Should Patrick decide to move to the Nationwide Series, she would have to align herself with the team who could support her the best. By that, I don’t mean with competitive equipment; I mean the ginormous salary that is allegedly being requested for her services of turning left. The figures floated have been speculated to be as high as $8 million for eight races (Editor’s Note: This figure has also been adamantly denied by some sources, who claim the actual amount is far less), and in a ride that has points and guaranteed to make the field – not one that would have to chance it on qualifying every week.

$8 million? That’s more than Carl Edwards‘s annual Cup Salary – and he won nine times last year. It’s also about what it takes to run a year of Nationwide competition and have a legitimate shot at winning. With that said, the teams of note she has spoken with seem to be backed by the financial support her contract requires, including Stewart-Haas Racing, JR Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports and most recently Michael Waltrip Racing. Roush Fenway Racing has seemed to distance themselves from the venture, as it would be too costly to put together a program, particularly this late in the game.

Then again, they did let Mark Martin walk in 2006 – and that’s really worked out awesome for them.

Of those contending, the two that stand out and make the most sense are probably JRM and HMS. They are both joined at the Hendrick hip and have established Nationwide programs, whereas SHR does not have much in the way of Nationwide know-how at the moment. In fact, it would seem as if the wheels have already been set in motion with the recent statements from the chief proprietor of Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide operation.

Kelly Earnhardt Elledge, president of JRM, has acknowledged the prospect of fielding a second JR Motorsports entry for Patrick for 2010. “There is a natural fit at JRM with Dale Jr. and Danica both serving as spokespersons for GoDaddy.com,” Elledge said. “As a female managing one of the top Nationwide Series teams in the sport, I would be excited to have Danica within the JR Motorsports fold if she decides to enter the world of NASCAR.”

Keep in mind that GoDaddy.com has also committed itself as the new primary sponsor of Martin’s No. 5 HMS Sprint Cup entry for 2010 and beyond. Martin has also signed up for another year of full-time duty with Hendrick, which will see him in the car through 2011 – leaving that seat open, at least part-time, just as Patrick is coming into the final year of the contract she reportedly signed with Andretti Green Racing. This, coupled with Martin’s past role as part-time driver and mentor while at Ginn Racing and DEI… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but feel free to connect the dots as you wish.

In the meantime, the popping NASCAR bubble is quickly reaching the lowest point we’ve seen so far. Right now, teams are scrambling to piece together sponsorship, swapping between drivers (including benching the defending champion of the Truck Series, Johnny Benson) while some just show up and park it before they have to throw on a $1,700 set of Goodyears. Everybody right now is looking for solutions to help right the sinking ship.

What is needed is something to generate interest, getting people excited about the sport again.

Yeah, I know. Decent, honest racing and improved coverage would probably help a whole bunch – but it is going to take a lot more than that. All one has to do is look at the IndyCar Series; they have admittedly the best oval track racing going, and don’t need to pile everybody up because of a water bottle or some roll bar padding to generate a close finish. But with their marketing falling flat and their drivers struggling to connect with the fans, there’s little to no audience around to pay attention.

What is needed for any series are sponsorship dollars and exposure – plain and simple – and the IRL just doesn’t have it while all of a sudden, we find stock car racing starting down that all-too-slippery slope.

Yet a rising tide floats all ships, and Patrick’s move to stock car country would do much to get corporate America interested in NASCAR again. There’ll be more coverage, more fans and more return on a long-term investment. Though I am loath to use clichés, one that remains constant is that racecars run on dollars, not on gasoline. More ratings, more coverage, more attendance, more sponsors mean more to go around for everybody; it’s a fairly simple business model, and one that has proven to work for the last six decades.

So will this burgeoning love affair turn out to be a marriage made in heaven or flame out quickly, resulting in little more than feelings of guilt or a burning sensation?

We’re about to find out. NASCAR’s newest soap opera will reach its climax in the coming weeks, and we will finally know for sure if Patrick will join NASCAR or return to her happy home that has been the IndyCar Series. And perhaps the biggest surprise is that not one but both will stop at nothing to keep her, believing the long-term health of their series is at stake regardless of the short-term consequences.

Whether that’s actually true for NASCAR is open to debate. But right now, what they think about their future looks to be crystal clear. There may be other fish in the sea, but the biggest one in the small pond that is American motorsports is down on bended knee, ready to welcome Danica Patrick with open arms.

The Italian Stallion is no one-trick pony! Check out Vito’s most recent article at Examiner.com, as he details the virtues of the Mustang GT – America’s best performance car value.

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