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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Like it or Not, the Danica Express is Coming to Save a NASCAR Near You

Well, with Tuesday’s announcement (not broadcast on television, but streamed online at GoDaddy.com) that Danica Patrick will run a limited schedule in the Nationwide Series in 2010, along with the ARCA Racing Series presented by Re/Max and Menards race at Daytona on February 6, the question of whether Danica will try stock cars or not is finally answered. I’m personally happy that this media blitz is now over.

However, now that the word is out, the prognostication will begin. How will Danica adjust to stock cars with extremely limited testing? History is not on Danica’s side here. Drivers that have come from the open wheel ranks (IndyCar Series, the former CCWS) to NASCAR have typically struggled early on. Jimmy Vasser only made two Busch starts in 2003, although he did run well at Daytona until getting taken out in Mike McLaughlin‘s crash. Dario Franchitti‘s struggles last season in the No. 40 in Sprint Cup were a stark contrast to his past success. Paul Tracy never produced all that much in his few NASCAR starts. Scott Speed has struggled in Sprint Cup, as has Sam Hornish Jr.¬†and even Juan Pablo Montoya has struggled at times since he came to stock cars at the end of 2006.

I don’t believe that Daytona will be any problem for her. In fact, the 200-mile ARCA race could serve as a legitimate test session for her, since ARCA announced recently that Nationwide cars are now eligible to run in the series. As a result, JR Motorsports could legitimately bring the car she would run in the 300 mile Nationwide race down to the track a week early so that she could get used it, with some alterations so that the car will met ARCA regulations.

Truthfully, at this point, the Nationwide Series can use all the publicity that it can get. It’s arguable that they are roughly where the Champ Car World Series was in 2005, with waning interest and a low car count. In addition. the series has had to fight off accusations that it is nothing but “Cup Lite” for most of the decade, especially in the last few years with full-time Cup drivers winning the last four series championships. So getting Danica to race there is nothing short of a coup. She brings droves of her fans to the table, and it’s up to NASCAR and the tracks (whichever ones in addition to Daytona that she races at) to take advantage of this opportunity to draw in those fans. We know GoDaddy will hold up their end of the bargain marketing-wise… now, the sport needs to follow suit.

Of course, Danica also brings in sex appeal with her to NASCAR (see Peak Antifreeze and GoDaddy commercials, SI Swimsuit Edition shoots, etc.), and this could potentially end up being controversial. I’ll admit that I really don’t care about her little ad campaigns and photo shoots, but it may turn off some other race fans. GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons mentioned on Tuesday that there will be different kinds of ads used to publicize Danica’s Nationwide activities, but he didn’t really go into details. This is something to look out for over the next couple of years, though.

Another issue that may haunt her is her, at times, confrontational nature. During her time in the IndyCar Series, Patrick has had multiple altercations with other drivers, once punching Jaques Lazier after a crash and getting in well-publicized arguments with Dan Wheldon and Milka Duno after on-track incidents. This will not go over very well with her peers if she tries that stuff in the Nationwide Series. She’ll have to keep her emotions in check since, unlike in the IndyCar Series, retribution can be performed relatively easily and painlessly. Truth be told, I really don’t think this will be an issue, but you never know.

There are still some unknowns as to what Danica’s schedule will look like for 2010 in the Nationwide Series. Previously, it had been assumed that Danica would drive 12 or 13 races in the series next season, but the exact number was not announced on Tuesday. All that was announced was that she was coming to the series (along with the aforementioned ARCA race at Daytona), and that they unveiled the new No. 7 Chevrolet. Now, Danica is still dedicated to the Izod IndyCar Series, so the races that she will do in the Nationwide Series will not interfere with her open-wheel responsibilities. This means that her schedule will be front- and back-loaded with NASCAR races, while the open-wheel events take up most of the year.

For her part, Danica is definitely taking this opportunity seriously and wants to do well, as any normal driver would. It is unclear what many experts think that she could be capable of in her Nationwide starts, but let’s briefly take a look at what she has to work with.

First off, Tony Eury Jr., Dale Jr.’s cousin (and recently announced as a co-owner of the race team), will be her crew chief. Say what you want about Eury, but he’s not a terrible choice. They could have easily done worse.

Second, she’s driving for JRM with guaranteed backing from GoDaddy. This is one of the best teams to drive for in the series. She’ll have support from Hendrick Motorsports as well, and we all know their strengths. She’s not going to be working with a bunch of scrubs.

Third, its still quite unclear who she’s going to be racing against in the Nationwide races, as there’s lots of open rides for 2010 at the moment. Of the teams that do make the grid for Daytona, there are likely to be quite a few start-and-park cars sprinkled among them.

And fourth, let’s not discount the fact that Danica actually has a great deal of natural skill behind the wheel. She’s not just some random woman who backed into the IndyCar Series because of sponsorship, like Duno with CITGO. The IndyCar Series is very competitive, and she has run well in the series since she first entered it.

Do I think Danica is going to win a Nationwide race in 2010? No, I don’t. Maybe in 2011, but not next season. I think she’ll acquit herself just fine, though. Next year will be a learning experience, since Danica has never driven a race car as heavy as a Nationwide car (I’m not sure, but I think the heaviest racecar she’s driven previously is either a Daytona Prototype in Grand-Am, or the Toyota Celica she drove in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race in Long Beach back in 2002. Of course, a Nationwide car has much more than the 168 horsepower that the Celica GT had). Staying out of wrecks should be a priority during her adjustment period.

Do I think Danica can be competitive in the Nationwide Series right away? At Daytona, yes. At the other tracks (which are unknown at this point) that she races at? More than likely, but it’ll be a little harder. I think that she can definitely get three or four top 10s in 2010. A couple of those races might challenge for the best-ever finish by a woman in a Nationwide race (for those of you like me who love minutiae, that is a seventh-place finish for Patty Moise at Talladega in July 1995). In 2011, I could definitely see her improving on her performance next season, just based off of her improvement in the IndyCar Series. When it comes to Danica, the sky could be the limit if she plays her cards right…

Honestly, having Danica Patrick in the Nationwide Series, even for a limited schedule, should benefit the series in the long term. Yes, it would be nice if she was able to score a victory or two, but we cannot count on that happening right away. NASCAR should take advantage of this to promote their main feeder series and try to further differentiate it from Sprint Cup. How they choose to publicize this remains to be seen.