For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November…
Editor’s Note: For Part I of our Season Preview Series, click here for analysis on the four-team rule run amok.
Today’s Season Preview Topic: After a year’s worth of “will she or won’t she,” Danica Patrick is coming over to NASCAR after all. How do you think she’ll do in her limited schedule this year, and why?
Tom Bowles, Did You Notice? (Wednesdays): I think Danica’s going to do better than people think. First off, with the way the Nationwide fields are these days she’ll outlast 10 start-and-parkers if she just makes it to lap 50. Combine that with the best equipment money can buy, and simply keeping the car in one piece is enough to guarantee her 20th place.
I think she’ll do far better than that, though. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. may not work with his cousin well, but he was leading Brad Keselowski to a handful of top-15 finishes in Cup the end of last year. He’s got a good base of knowledge for Danica to draw from, and she’ll be able to lean on superstars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart as she makes this transition.
Most importantly, this challenge is the type a competitive Danica relishes, and I expect nothing less than her “A” game the whole season. I think there’s a limit to how good her first year will go – as we’ve seen with drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, it can take up to three years to be consistently successful when coming from open-wheel – but I’m betting on a top five and a handful of top 10s. And by the end of the year, she’ll be put on a track to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 in 2012… because she earned it.
Jared Turner, Turner’s Take (Tuesdays): Danica Patrick will suprise some folks, simply because her JR Motorsports team is one of the best in the Nationwide Series and is the best Nationwide-only team. Patrick could very plausibly rack up several top 10s and even score a win or two if the chips fall in place, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready for a quick move to Sprint Cup. To truly be prepared for NASCAR’s top series, Patrick will need to spend the greater part of two years in Nationwide.
Vito Pugliese, Voice Of Vito (Wednesdays): The arrival of Patrick to NASCAR could not have come at a better time. Or a worse time – take your pick. With NASCAR’s popularity currently teetering somewhere between the NBA and a scorching case of herpes, the most popular and pretty face in American motorsports is a boon for the series. Her fans in open wheel racing as well as curious onlookers will hopefully be added to those empty seats in the grandstands (and vacant viewership at home). But will her raven-haired attractiveness translate to success on the track, and not a look-at-the-dancing-bear publicity stunt?
I sincerely believe it will.
As part of the most powerful armada ever assembled since Normandy in 1944, Patrick has all of the tools and support of Hendrick (er, JR) Motorsports to be successful. I also have always felt she hasn’t gotten a fair shake from the media at large since she burst onto the scene in 2005, although it’s notable the hype surrounding her has certainly surpassed the results; one win in 81 starts. Still, consider that’s also occurred during a period when one or two teams were dominating open-wheel racing – and she was not a part of either one of them at the time.
The learning curve for stock cars will be steep. However, Patrick – as well as NASCAR – has to have her succeed. The symbiotic relationship between them is ever apparent, and with that in mind they simply won’t allow failure as an option. Maintaining national relevance depends on it.
Kurt Smith, Happy Hour (Fridays): Seriously, does it even matter? The hype surrounding Danica has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of racing skill. NASCAR finally has someone who can make an SI swimsuit spread; that’s what’s going to launch them back into the national spotlight. In my opinion, her actual finishes aren’t going to mean diddly squat.
But since the question was asked, I’d say she likely will not run very well, even with the Hendrick resources behind her. She is inexperienced at racing with fenders, she won’t be able to devote her full attention to improving, and she won’t be racing enough to get used to it.
One thing I do know, and that is that we will not be allowed to forget how Danica is running throughout every race. You can believe that. And unlike Scott Wimmer, she’ll have a solid ride as long as she wants it (OK, I didn’t mean that to sound the way it did…)
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): Danica Patrick’s “brand” will reach new heights while her on-track performance will be that of any first-time stock car driver. Will she show flashes of adeptness? Yes, but to a man, each competitor that has been asked about Patrick’s “fazing in” process to stocks has voiced the opinion that to be successful, she must do this with an all-or-nothing mentality. These guys – Stewart and Montoya included – would know. I’ll trust the opinions of the experienced few.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Tearing Apart The Trucks (Fridays): After all of the hype surrounding Patrick and her crossover to NASCAR, something tells me she’s going to find it quite difficult to make the switch. I haven’t been impressed from what I’ve seen from Patrick in the IndyCar Series, and she’ll have quite a learning curve with a much heavier car to pilot. With the amount of bumping and banging that can go on at tracks like Bristol and Darlington, I predict it won’t take long to see a her first temper tantrum, either.
If she’s smart, Patrick will take in everything she’s told by drivers trying to give her pointers at the track. Assuming she does that, perhaps there’s a chance this part-time gig can become a full-time one for herself in the future. A female driver that can race competitively in the Sprint Cup Series will be good for the sport – but will Danica be patient enough to do what it takes to get there?
Tony Lumbis, Senior Writer: In short, I would say Patrick will have very limited success. If one looks at some of her open-wheel convert predecessors in recent years, success is the exception, not the rule. Take Dario Franchitti, for example. He came into the Sprint Cup Series in 2008 as the defending Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion. When he jumped into Chip Ganassi’s Target No. 40 Dodge, it was quite a different story as the rookie recorded two DNQs and an average finish of only 34.3 before being released. Danica, on the other hand, has had a fraction of success that Franchitti enjoyed in the open-wheel ranks, recording only one win in five years (which came on fuel mileage).
One thing Patrick does have going for her, though, is she learned from the mistakes of her predecessors. Instead of getting immediately behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car, she opted instead to learn the ropes of heavier stock cars in the Nationwide Series. Furthermore, she will have some of the best equipment in the sport under the hood from Hendrick Motorsports. While she will spend most of 2010 getting up to speed, I do believe she will pull off one to two top 10s this season.
Mike Ravesi, Senior Writer: Depends on your definition of success, I guess. Mine for a team with this much behind it would be top-20 finishes – or top 15 when the number of Cup regulars are down for the race. I don’t think Danica’s gonna put up those kinds of numbers – but when NASCAR higher ups are referring to the sport as a “product” and the concern for the sponsors is put before the fans, you’ll get drivers that are more about marketing than being competitive.
Amy Henderson, Big Six (Sunday Newsletter): Danica will crack the top 15 and possibly the top 10 in at least a couple of races, because that’s what superior equipment will do for you. But let’s look at some history, building off of what Tony Lumbis said above. There have been several open-wheel converts in the last decade. One is a Sprint Cup champion, but that’s Stewart, who is also an IRL champ. Montoya has a Cup win, a Chase berth… but it took until his third year to really break through. Two-time IRL champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Franchitti tried – and couldn’t get it done. Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. is barely cracking the top 15 in Cup races after two years of trying – and all four of these drivers were far more impressive in open-wheel cars than Danica has ever been. She’s a mediocre Indy car driver at best, and has a less-than-charming attitude to boot. I think Hendrick development driver Landon Cassill should be pissed. He’s an actual stock car driver with a lot of potential, yet finds himself out of the seat yet again – this time for a publicity stunt.
Toni Montgomery, Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary (Fridays): I don’t think it will be anything to write home about, and I think that’s going to become apparent pretty quickly. To put it bluntly, Danica is a moderate IndyCar driver but with all of one win, she’s far from the best driver to make the jump and those drivers with far better resumes – think championships – have struggled. Danica’s biggest appeal is that she looks good in a bikini. What will be fun to watch is the first time she and Kyle Busch have a run-in. Put your money on Danica if it becomes a fight.
And one more, just for good measure…
S.D. Grady, Fan’s View: Do I really have to discuss her at all?
Seriously, she’ll make the show, garner lots of interviews, and even without seeing a glimmer of victory lane, she’ll boost the ratings for the Nationwide Series just by smiling at all the little boys. Will she be a contender? Not a chance.
Just like any other applicant into the upper echelons of stock car racing, she needs seat time to shine. And that, she just ain’t got yet.