NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Danica Needs NASCAR – But Is It a 2-Way Street?

With it looking all but carved in stone that Danica Patrick will be joining the NASCAR ranks, there are many things NASCAR is happy about. First and foremost, they are getting a female driver who is competitive on her own skills; and let’s face it, one who looks like Danica can’t hurt. She’s certainly one of the best in the country at driving an open-wheel car, and this lends legitimacy to a campaign that has rarely been successfully completed in the past. She’s already a high-profile household name despite never having raced in the nation’s premier stock car series. It seems like a perfect fit. So, just one question.

Does NASCAR really need Danica Patrick?

At first glance, maybe they do. Ratings are falling faster than a bowling ball dropped out of an airplane, and there’s not much new or exciting to keep fans engaged. Perhaps they need the gimmick of a female driver who is certainly not afraid to flaunt anything – and I don’t just mean her ego. Perhaps a competitive female driver will capture the female demographic better than a male rookie might. Perhaps this, perhaps that.

Or perhaps, Danica needs NASCAR more than NASCAR needs her.

The IndyCar Series, by and large, doesn’t garner the audience that a NASCAR event does, with the possible exception of that one race in May. And Danica… well, Danica likes an audience. The bigger the better. And she’s shown that she’ll go to great lengths to get it, including spreading her body over the hood of a car wearing less than a firesuit. The NASCAR spotlight provides that for her.

Patrick is also… um, temperamental. Think Kyle Busch, but with estrogen. And while NASCAR needs character, they might not be ready for a driver as pugnacious as Patrick has shown herself to be. She’s been front and center for a couple of very public skirmishes in Indy cars – a catfight shouting match with Milka Duno, and a purposeful storming down pit road to confront Ryan Briscoe after a crash that she determined to be his fault. There was also the temper tantrum caught on her in-car camera after one spinout, when the emergency workers had the audacity to tend to other drivers first. (Patrick was unhurt and simply needed a push.) On closer inspection, Patrick makes Busch look like Gandhi.

Most NASCAR fans don’t warm up to a whiner, and Patrick can whine with the best spoiled 3-year-old and Kyle Busch – at the same time.

Is Patrick a good racer? Well, yes. She is. She’s a constant top-10 threat in the IndyCar Series, and it’s not because other drivers lay over for her. She’s solid and aggressive, and she fears no man or woman on the track. Don’t try to intimidate her. Provided she can learn stock cars, she will be competitive, especially in the top-flight equipment she’ll get from Hendrick Motorsports – whose partnership with JR Motorsports, the organization for which Patrick will officially drive – assures her the best money can buy. She’s getting winning racecars, and there is no reason to believe that she won’t be competitive in her ARCA and NASCAR events.

But is Patrick good enough for NASCAR to bend the rules for? Apparently, she is, as the sport is allowing her to make her national touring series debut at Daytona – something that as recently as a last week, simply wasn’t allowed. Remember seeing Robert Richardson Jr.’s name in the race results at Talladega? That wasn’t Richardson’s plan. He had planned to make his first attempt at Daytona in February 2010, but was told he had to make the Talladega start because the sanctioning body didn’t allow drivers to debut at Daytona. Yet here were are, a few days later, and it’s OK for Danica Patrick. Maybe she’s really that good, but the cynic in me wonders if NASCAR would have allowed Scott Dixon or another male IndyCar driver the same dispensation. Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., both IRL champions (something that Patrick is not), did not make their NASCAR debuts at Daytona. Tony Stewart was allowed, but Stewart had driven some form of stock cars before – Patrick has not. Stewart was the reigning IRL champion at the time – Patrick is not. So is NASCAR bending a rule designed for the safety of the drivers because Patrick is a decent IRL driver… or because she’s a female IRL driver?

I do wonder if NASCAR would be salivating over the prospect of Patrick if she was a male driver. Her aggressive nature and attitude are a whole lot more Robby Gordon-esque than some people would like – not exactly endearing to race fans. And while many fans give lip service to the need for a “bad boy” (or girl), most of the bad boys aren’t very popular. They get booed. They get reviled. They get called names. Most of them don’t mind – it’s attention, after all, and it gets their sponsors on TV. But just like there are nice male drivers out there, there are nice, talented females, too. Chrissy Wallace comes to mind, and she’s actually eligible to start at Daytona, having made her Talladega debut last week.

Again, perhaps NASCAR does need Danica Patrick to a certain degree. She’s young, talented and exciting, and with the decline in interest, she could be a quick fix in the short run, making casual or discouraged fans watch a few races in 2010. But that also comes with a caveat, as Patrick is also inexperienced in stock cars and has an attitude that makes an angry Yeti look like a pet kitten. Meanwhile, NASCAR has a young, talented, exciting, and bad attitude in Kyle Busch – and he’s experienced in the cars. They aren’t getting anything new in Danica Patrick, and once the novelty wears off, will her attitude wear thin? And if it does, is NASCAR any better off than they were before she walked into Daytona?

Patrick, on the other hand, needs NASCAR. She’s no longer a novelty in the IndyCar Series, and no longer garners as much television coverage as she once got simply for being in the field and running reasonably well. But she’ll get attention in NASCAR, and the TV time to go with it, whether she runs well or not. And since she’s already in the catbird seat with an array of built-in excuses – rookie, new to stock cars, raced too aggressively because she’s a female – if she doesn’t run well, that means she’ll have the ability to get more attention than she’s ever had if she does.

It could be a win-win situation, but it looks like one party is the real winner here. And in the long run, that might not be NASCAR.

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