The biggest name in IndyCar racing, the anointed savior of the Nationwide Series, Ms. Danica Patrick will make her fourth start in NASCAR’s AAA division this coming weekend, with no need to worry about qualifying (a big pat on the back for Scott Wimmer, Josh Wise, Landon Cassill, Steve Arpin and all those who made it possible for her majesty to have no fears of… shudder… failing to qualify for a race).
And just like in Daytona four months ago, where the racing world went into her first race convinced they would see something spectacular after her sixth-place finish driving a de facto Hendrick Motorsports machine in an ARCA race, all eyes will be turned to the open-wheeler and her bright green racecar when the green flag drops in Loudon. It’s harder to blame the centric media focus this time, as Cup regulars Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards have already turned this season’s title chase into a snoozefest.
Because heaven forbid the networks would tell the real story permeating the Nationwide Series garage… the complete and utter lack of money out there that is starving the tour’s stalwart teams to death. Heaven forbid ESPN air a story about how full-time operations such as Specialty Racing, K-Automotive and Baker/Curb Racing’s second team have been reduced to start-and-parking due to a lack of sponsor dollars. Heaven forbid they give some coverage to the plight of Tri-Star Motorsports, where Jason Keller and Tony Ave have taken an unsponsored car from multiple DNQs at the start of the season into the Top 30, and a locked-in spot in the field. Or how RAB Racing has also cracked the Top 30 and still not landed a sponsor. Or how even mighty Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t been able to sell races on its No. 6 or No. 16 cars.
The story of the 2010 Nationwide Series season is the complete absence of money for teams to race with… and the seeming lack of any tangible effort from both NASCAR and the ESPN networks to do anything to help remedy it.
Besides, that is, lavishing tons of TV time, coverage and praise upon Patrick. The courage she as a woman has to come play with the big boys of stock car racing (never mind that Jennifer Jo Cobb, Alli Owens, Shawna Robinson, Chrissy Wallace, Erin Crocker and others have done the very same thing the past few seasons). The potential she has shown through amazing moves such as driving in a straight line through the Big One at Daytona or actually having the audacity to try a different line on the track at Las Vegas after being lapped. And the plethora of fans and interest she has brought to the Nationwide Series, and how all that publicity will surely benefit all those struggling teams in its ranks.
Sure, the TV ratings for her first three races were higher. She sold plenty of merchandise. She drew more attention for ARCA’s season opener than any race in that series’ history. But Danica-Mania has proven to be nothing more than a sugar pill. Come week two of the ARCA season at Palm Beach, the field was far from full, the grandstands nearly empty, the website traffic at ARCARacing.com back to normal. On the Nationwide Series side, attendance has continued to plummet (15,000 at Charlotte?!) while TV ratings have at best stagnated. And best of luck trying to name one new sponsor that has entered the sport because they went “OMG, Danica raced there!”
Treating Patrick like the savior the Nationwide Series is in desperate need of has clearly blown up in the faces of both NASCAR and ESPN. With as many as 10 start-and-parkers likely to take the green flag Saturday, only 44 cars on the entry list and no remote semblance of a compelling storyline for the rest of the season in sight, the 2010 campaign is proving to be just as laborious for fans to stomach as the last four have been.
Fact is, Danica’s not the answer, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. The spunky attitude that IndyCar fans have come to expect from her is tame when compared to NASCAR, a sport that’s national reputation came not on the strength of two mediocre women trading angry words, but of competitors beating and banging, trading paint on the track and fists off of it. But more importantly, she’s done absolutely nothing on the racetrack for fans to cheer about, and has put herself in a position where she will never be able to.
Three starts, two DNFs, a best finish of 31st. A rookie named Daniel Patrick that put up those kind of numbers wouldn’t get a second look from the ESPN booth. Plus, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taught the racing world anything, it’s that no matter how popular and respected a driver is, fans expect and demand performance on the track. Continue to struggle, and they’re not going to continue to pay attention.
And love her or hate her, Danica is going to continue to struggle. If drivers the caliber of Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti and others weren’t able to figure out stock car racing by doing it full-time, a driver who is struggling to run top 10 in the IRL ranks certainly isn’t going to start running up front by racing every couple of months. Even if she’s driving cars that Rick Hendrick’s people are putting on the track.
This has all been said before, and frankly it sucks to be writing about Patrick with so many teams out there struggling, teams that treat the Nationwide Series as their home and a place to race, not a place to dabble and sell. But like it or not, NASCAR and ESPN are at the controls of this sinking ship. And they’re putting a lot of their faith in Danica-mania being the ticket back to port.
It’s not going to work. It didn’t sell the Nationwide Series to tons of new fans earlier this season. It hasn’t brought in the vitally needed sponsor dollars for race teams not so fortunate to having racing royalty driving for them. And it sure as hell hasn’t led to a lasting boost in attendance.
Do tell, NASCAR and ESPN. After Danica-mania flops, what’s plan B?