NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Danica Hype a Symbol of Where It’s at Today

With Danica Patrick likely to race in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports next season, NASCAR can partially exhale knowing that they can declare their diversity efforts to finally be bearing some fruit. Erin Crocker just wasn’t going to get it done there.

But with that selection comes a simple question: Why her?

At face value, Patrick is a better driver than most give her credit for. The surface comparisons to Anna Kournikova – hot female athlete with marginal ability – are not without merit, but they aren’t quite accurate. Danica finished fifth in the IRL standings this year. Each season, she has done better than in the previous one.

So it isn’t so much that she’s overrated as a racecar driver. She isn’t AJ Foyt… but she doesn’t stink at it, either.

That said, there is no heavy-breathing desire on any NASCAR team’s part to pursue Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Ryan Briscoe or Helio Castroneves, all of whom are far more accomplished than Patrick in the IRL. Kanaan is Patrick’s teammate at Andretti-Green Racing, so presumably they race in close to equal equipment. He’s won six races to Danica’s one in the last three seasons. Dario Franchitti, whose foray into NASCAR was brief and unmarked by achievement, won a championship with Andretti-Green in 2007.

Open-wheel drivers far better than Patrick have tried NASCAR and mostly failed. Franchitti is the best example. Granted, none of the recent open-wheel entrants into NASCAR drove for Hendrick Motorsports or for one of its tentacles. But Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed thus far have not even challenged to be the top performers on their own teams, a level of success that Franchitti also failed to reach during his stint in NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya is the only exception, and it took him a couple of years to start running well with the big boys. Based on history, Patrick’s prospects would look bleak in NASCAR.

So there’s a fair conclusion to draw from this. NASCAR wants Danica, teams want Danica, and sponsors want Danica – not because she’s the best Indy car racer out there, not because she’s female even, but because she looks great in a swimsuit.

In a perfect world, there would be minority and female drivers who fought their way into the top series of NASCAR by becoming worthy racecar drivers on their own, not because NASCAR selected them to be in a special training program or because they sold Sports Illustrated swimsuit specials. Danica doesn’t seem to have a problem being better known for her curves than for how she navigates them, but somehow I don’t think female drivers trying to work their way through the auto racing ranks would like the idea that they can’t have any body fat or stringy hair if they want to make it in NASCAR.

You would think sports would be different from Hollywood in that regard. In reality, it isn’t. A team needs sponsorship to race, and drivers like Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. unquestionably bring it. Kyle Busch may be a better racecar driver than either of them, but there isn’t any question whom you’d rather have on your team from a strictly business standpoint. Junior and Danica are moneymaking machines. Of course teams are going to pursue them, no matter what their results on the track.

So reality being what it is, what’s bothersome is that fields are featuring more and more drivers who are there not because of their skills in piloting a racecar but because of their skills in bringing along a sponsor. Paul Menard is a better driver than his results have been showing, but he isn’t as good as some of the unknowns that are struggling to get full-time rides in the Nationwide Series. Casey Mears is a super nice guy, but that someone with his career numbers is continually offered rides with high-profile teams is baffling.

The Nationwide Series itself is suffering from this affliction. In the end, the funding dictates who races on the track, so Nationwide becomes Cup Lite, with sponsors almost as willing to take a chance on an unknown as a big-market radio station is willing to play a song that we haven’t already heard two billion times. (Honestly, if I have to hear “Born To Be Wild” one more time…) Full-time Cup drivers run away with minor league championships while aspiring talents languish unseen, unfunded, and unnoticed in inferior equipment.

It’s a nice little Catch-22 – you need to be proven to get a sponsor, but you need to get a sponsor to have a chance to prove yourself. Sometimes, even that isn’t good enough. Earlier this year, I wrote an article about Scott Wimmer and how he is struggling to even keep a Nationwide ride despite the fact that he was holding his own with the Cup drivers when he had the equipment. You can bet Danica will never have any such difficulty, though, no matter how many times she finishes 30th.

At least the situation improved slightly this year, to the point where we’re seeing some promising young talent in the Nationwide Series for the first time in a while… drivers like Kelly Bires and Justin Allgaier are starting to get some respect out there. But JR Motorsports would take that progress a step back putting Danica in the No. 5. There are plenty of qualified stock car drivers who have paid their dues and are worthy of a competitive ride.

Now don’t get me wrong here. Being sponsor-friendly, which means either winning a lot or being non-controversial (or both, in the case of drivers like Jimmie Johnson), needs to be part of the package for a driver to succeed in racing – but should it be this large a part of it?

Patrick will get a quality ride in the Nationwide Series thanks to her SI swimsuit spread, but in the end she’s going to have to perform to hold fans’ interest. The racetrack is still the arena where one is measured and rewarded solely on ability (except for when 11 drivers have their points upgraded to match the leader) — not for bouncy hair, nice eyes or smooth skin. At least for now.

One wonders if NASCAR will make insidious rule changes in an effort to help another marketable driver who will probably not succeed right away. But even if they don’t, the pursuit of Danica demonstrates that it’s more about the show than the racing anymore, anyway. Why not give her a hand up? Maybe have a “fan vote” to determine the polesitter each Saturday. Sort of the same principle, isn’t it?

The bottom line is another open-wheel star is coming to NASCAR without working through the ranks, following basically the same path that many better drivers have – ultimately to mediocrity. And that means the product on the track is being dictated by people who, in fact, know very little about auto racing – except that Danica Patrick unzipping herself is hot.

Remember, it’s a show.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Think the championship battle has gotten interesting? Jimmie’s now up by 73 points, which means, as good as the No. 48 cars have been and still are, that Mark Martin is going to have to more or less finish top five at Phoenix and Homestead and Jimmie will have to falter once more. Not insurmountable, but I’d say pretty unlikely.
  • First Eddie D’Hondt and now Tony Stewart. Some of these guys actually think we have enough influence to brainwash the world of racing fans into thinking the racing of late is boring. If I had that much pull, the Chase would already be a distant memory. Heck, I don’t even really think the racing is that bad, at least not when the tour is at Martinsville, Dover or even Pocono. What does NASCAR hope to achieve by blaming the press? The same swing of public opinion now enjoyed by the president after blaming FOX News for his popularity slide?
  • I have been reading that Brian France didn’t even watch all of the Talladega race, which is amusing more than anything else. I’d only be interested in knowing why he chose not to watch it. Couldn’t he get it on the Internet like everyone else not watching on TV? OK, I’m piling on; I’ll quit now.
  • Great that someone won a million dollars from Kurt Busch’s win last weekend. That his running out of fuel helped a guy out ought to cheer Kyle up a bit.

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