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What’s Vexing Vito: Enter the Era of DaniCAR – Patrick to Join JR Motorsports in 2010

Following months – well, years really – of speculation, it appears that Danica Patrick is at long last coming south to compete in NASCAR. “Danicamania” was the prologue to what will no doubt be deemed DaniCAR, as she is currently finalizing a two-year contract that will see her competing in the Nationwide Series in 2010 for JR Motorsports with significant backing from Hendrick Motorsports. The formal announcement is likely to be made after the 2009 season is complete, with the contract itself reportedly wrapped up within the next week to 10 days.

After meeting with HMS owner Rick Hendrick two weeks ago, Patrick was assured she has his full commitment to supporting her endeavors through JRM. One issue at hand, however, is the car number she will be running; Patrick reportedly wants to keep her IndyCar No. 7, rather than run the No. 5 that was the original HMS entry – and a number used by his late son, Ricky.

But the assurances of Hendrick have no doubt helped to sway Patrick to join with JRM… not that there was ever much doubt to begin with. Sure, Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have raced together in the past – albeit in the Jay-Z video for “Show Me What You Got” – and after Brad Keselowski announced he was departing JRM to sign with Penske Championship Racing in 2010, that opened up some room within the organization. Though Kelly Bires has been named as the full-time driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet next season, it was only a few weeks ago that Kelly Earnhardt Elledge, president of JRM, tipped her hand a bit when questioned about the prospect of fielding a second JRM entry for Patrick next year.

“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 JRM fold if she decides to enter the world of NASCAR.”

Patrick’s move will be a much-heralded and watershed moment for the sport, as she will be the first female to compete in the type of equipment capable of getting someone to victory lane. There have been women before her who certainly helped pave the way – Janet Guthrie, Patty Moise and Shawna Robinson, to name a few – but Patrick also earned this opportunity, peaking with her ascent to the IndyCar Series after years of rising up through the ranks. Yet many critics, particularly those whose main focus is covering stick-and-ball sports, have been dismissive of her success, likening her to former tennis star Anna Kournikova. Kournikova never won a major tennis tournament, instead garnering much of her fame and fortune by simply being hot and posing in scantily-clad outfits.

It also earned her the unfortunate nickname “Porn-ikova.” But I digress….

But while Patrick is no stranger to a swimsuit issue or calendars adorning many a toolbox in muffler shops across America, the difference between her and Kournikova is that the girl can actually drive. She managed to finish fourth in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005, won her first IndyCar race at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan in 2008, and managed a best-ever season points finish in 2009 of fifth – ahead of teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

Patrick’s move to NASCAR, however, does not come cheaply, as the price tag of her presence is a steep one to say the least. Obscene figures have been flying around for months, with numbers initially as high as $8 million for eight races, though most recently that number has been reduced to $300,000 per Nationwide race – doubling to $600,000 should she also compete in a Camping World Truck Series race in the same weekend.

(Hey, times are tough. We all have to make sacrifices and cinch up the belt a couple of notches!)

Of course, perhaps the most startling thing is how much pomp and circumstance there is for a driver who hasn’t even made it to the major leagues yet. To clarify, Patrick is coming to NASCAR, but she is not going to be competing in the Sprint Cup Series – rather, she is dipping her painted toes in the stock car waters a little bit at a time, following the old “A-B-C” path into fendered competition that drivers used to take, one that once stood for ARCA-Busch-Cup.

(I guess you could call this one ACNE – ARCA, Camping World, NationwidE, but that doesn’t sound very appealing.)

Plus, she has nice skin.

The timing of this announcement could be considered suspect, for it is none too soon for NASCAR. Following the abomination of organized motorsports competition that was the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega this past weekend, it would be in the sanctioning body’s best interest to move that off the front page of just about every racing-related newspaper, website, forum, blog, tweet, text message or general conversation surrounding the state of NASCAR as soon as possible. And considering our own article’s placement on the front of the site this morning, guess what? They succeeded in doing just that.

(Sure, AJ Allmendinger, Michael Waltrip and JC France all made headlines recently, too, but racecar drivers involved in alcohol-related traffic incidents are probably not what the series needs at the moment.)

The ire raised by restrictor plates has been compounded recently by a championship battle that seemingly come apart faster than an engine in the No. 11 car. But while Jimmie Johnson is talking a walk on the mild side, on cruise control for his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title, Patrick’s arrival may now spark some renewed interest down the stretch, be it from potential sponsors, media coverage, as well as old and new fans alike – either through legitimate interest or morbid curiosity.

That is not to liken Patrick to some circus sideshow attraction or look-at-the-dancing-bear spectacle, but the excitement generated by those who wish to see her compete, succeed – or even fail miserably – will impact the sport greatly, and give an immediate boost to a product that has grown decidedly stale in recent years.

So when does this party get started, you might ask?

When questioned regarding the possibility of Patrick making her debut as soon as this season, Hendrick categorically denied the rumor that she would be competing in two weeks at Phoenix International Raceway – which just so happens to be in Patrick’s backyard. It is also the headquarters of JRM and HMS sponsor GoDaddy.com, and you all should all be familiar with Patrick’s affiliation with the domain registrar, since she is a “GoDaddy Girl,” which helped connect the dots between Patrick and the team she would likely end up signing with.

But since Patrick’s name and car would need to be submitted already to meet the entry deadline, that option is likely out the window. There has also been no talk of seat fittings or clandestine test sessions with any teams recently, so it would seem a bit premature for such an undertaking to be thrown together at the last second in the penultimate race of the season. That, combined with the fact that she would have to be approved by NASCAR for competition first, has silenced any possibility of that happening.

As things stand now, Patrick will make her debut during Speedweeks 2010 in Daytona, in both the Nationwide and ARCA series – which are sound choices for her first races. Superspeedways seem to be her strong suit over in open-wheel, as witnessed by her consistently stout performances in the Indianapolis 500. The two weeks spent in Daytona will help get her acclimated to the cars, the track and the difference of discipline between driving open-wheel cars and NASCAR stock cars. Should she not gain NASCAR approval for superspeedway action at Daytona, she would likely compete the following week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The first year is expected to be no more than a learning curve at best; with the addition of the new Nationwide CoT working its way into team inventories in 2010 in preparation for 2011, Patrick will be on more equal footing during her second year of competition.

As big of an announcement as this will be, some will still decry this as little more than a publicity stunt. After all, NASCAR like the rest of the nation could use some good news right now, as the past few months have been quite a burden to bear. The gloom and doom that has plagued NASCAR and motorsports in general all year has undoubtedly taken its toll, from the start-and-park fiasco in all three series, sponsorship woes affecting large and small teams alike, followed by the government seiz… errr… bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, coupled with the insufferable on-track product masquerading as racing and coverage, has fan apathy rising to levels that would make even Jimmy Carter indifferent.

The reaction following this past weekend at Talladega was potentially the last block yanked out of the Jenga! stack before it all collapses. But with the addition of a fresh face and hair not seen since Kyle Petty was dispatched in a silent coup, there at least looks to be something positive to talk about in NASCAR for 2010. It’s just the weight of the NASCAR world will now, in effect, be placed squarely on the shoulders of a 5’2”, 110-pound brunette.

That’s not an easy burden to bear. But should she succeed, she will be worth every penny they are paying her – and her weight in gold.

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