Here Comes Danica

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Danica Patrick comes full circle - literally - heading to NASCAR full-time in 2012

Danica Patrick comes full circle - literally - heading to NASCAR full-time in 2012

by Vito Pugliese

The question that has been on everyone’s mind in NASCAR was finally answered last Thursday. No, not why Kyle Busch is suddenly sporting a demure part in his hair versus his normal spikey doo (you have to at least give the impression of being a mature, 26-year-old solid-citizen when zapped at 128 mph in a 45 while driving a loaner), but the announcement that has been nearly three years in the making: Danica Patrick is finally headed to NASCAR, full-time. Lock, stock and barrel.

Hmm, that’s odd … nobody really seems that surprised.

Clearly, the announcement was a bit anti-climatic. Ever since Patrick first wheeled something with fenders in a Daytona ARCA race in 2010, executing one of the best "Look-Ma-No-Hands!" saves through the infield grass, it was a foregone conclusion that the second-biggest name in North American motorsports would be heading south.

After starting off a bit rocky in her rookie season on the Nationwide trail in 2010 — that saw an early exit in the season opener at Daytona followed by laps-down runs and an average finishing position of 28th in 13 races — many thought that it would merely be a flash-in-the-pan performance and yet another reality check for open wheelers who have found the going tough in stock car country.

Not so fast. What former teammate and fellow IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti gave up on following half a season in 2008, Patrick is committing to for the entire 2012 season and beyond. She will run the full Nationwide Series schedule next season in the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports as well as eight to 10 Sprint Cup Series races for Stewart-Haas Racing.

So with her future no longer in doubt, what should Patrick’s main concern be at the moment? It may just be to temper expectations.

Don’t take that as a knock against her — if anything, it is the polar opposite. For much of her IndyCar career, Patrick has been the main attraction for a struggling series that saw a distinct lack of American talent — and a proportionate amount of American eyes. Ever since the CART/IRL debacle of the mid 1990s, the Coca-Cola 600 has slowly become the premier Memorial Day weekend race on this side of the pond, as open-wheeled racing in America slid into obscurity. It was Patrick’s arrival at the Brickyard in 2005 as a rookie — and a female that finished fourth — that stood the racing world on its ear and made people take notice of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing once again.

Since then, the knock against Patrick has been that she simply hasn’t won anything and was quickly becoming auto racing’s Anna Kournikova. The comparisons and criticism was unfounded and way out of line, often thrown about by stick-and-ball beat writers who have next to no knowledge of the intricacies and nuances of motorsports. It’s one thing to question why Shaquille O’Neal can’t put a ball in a hole that he’s practically eye-level with and 15 feet away from; it’s another to ask somebody why they’re .10 seconds off a 220-plus mph pace against some of the greatest names in auto racing while driving for a late night talk show host.

Patrick’s peers have not had the easiest go of it in NASCAR, either. Paul Tracy made a handful of starts in the Nationwide Series in 2006, averaging nearly a 34th place finish — one of which was a 37th-place effort at the road course in Mexico City. Dario Franchitti averaged a 17.4-place finish in ’08, buoyed in part by a fifth at Watkins Glen. Franchitti ran 10 Sprint Cup races the same season for Felix Sabates (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing), failing to qualify twice while posting a best finish of 22nd at Martinsville, of all places. Most of his entries were miserable runs that resembled start-and-park efforts; consistent finishes in the mid- 30s and 40s, prompting his return to IndyCar.

Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya has found the going tough in NASCAR, too, posting only a pair of wins since entering the Cup Series full-time in 2007 — both coming on road courses. His average finish in his fifth full season is hovering around 20th, and he has only made the Chase once (2009). Another Formula One competitor, Scott Speed, has also struggled in stock cars, battling desperately to stay involved in the sport after showing promise in ARCA his first year out, and winning a Truck Series race in only his sixth start. Even former Ferrari ace Kimi Raikkonen had a hard time taming a Toyota Tundra at Charlotte this year in a Truck Series race.

Patrick, on the other hand, has a hard-fought fourth-place run (Las Vegas) and a pair of 10th-place showings (Daytona, Chicagoland) in seven starts this year. The Daytona run, in particular, was promising as — much like late in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 — she was leading with just four laps to go. So clearly she has the chops for this — more so than some of the other guys she is following from the same ranks.

One could argue that “Danicamania” in ’05 was the “Greatest Spectacle” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen in nearly a decade. Leading with seven laps remaining in her first shot driving in the biggest race on the planet, Patrick ended up fourth, garnering more attention that day, and in the subsequent weeks, than the race winner — much to said-winner Dan Wheldon’s chagrin.

At the next race, Wheldon showed up sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I Actually Won The Indy 500.”

In a sense, Patrick is in a similar position now as a full-time NASCAR competitor — albeit in the stepping-stone Nationwide Series. NASCAR’s former feeder series had over the course of the last seven or eight seasons been less about driver development than it had been about Cup teams and drivers getting an extra tire test on Saturday. With the recent revisions to the point system allotted and the introduction of a unique next-generation car featuring musclecar nameplates of Dodge’s iconic Challenger and the ubiquitous Ford Mustang, the NASCAR’S triple-A division has begun to generate its own identity and garner renewed focus. And with Patrick on board for 2012, there will be many more taking a second look on Saturday.

However, the appetizer on NASCAR’s weekly menu is just setting the stage for her eventual main course: the Sprint Cup Series. Running a third of the races in 2012, it will be yet another steep learning curve for Patrick. While 2013 marks the expected graduation to the top-level in NASCAR, it also marks the debut of the next generation CoT for the Cup Series — one that looks to evolve from its current incarnation, incorporating many of the features and attributes found on the current Nationwide CoT. This will help serve to prevent the confusion of trying to learn two different stock cars at once, which was part of the problem for Montoya in ’07 and Franchitti in ’08.

Also helping to sustain Patrick in this new venture is the fact that it would do the sport well to see her succeed. As if the daily "Drudge Report" headlines aren’t enough to remind you that we are one errant move away from collapsing the entire Jenga! stack that is our economy, finding money to fund race cars isn’t exactly at the top of every company’s to-do list. Since she arrived in 2010, Patrick has been coached and mentored by the best in the business. Veterans like Mark Martin, Johnny Benson Jr., Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all taken time to get her up to speed before and during races to accelerate her learning curve and curtail some of the stumbles that befell her first few races last season.

They say a rising tide floats all ships, and it is in NASCAR’s best interest for Admiral Patrick to set sail successfully, otherwise there are going to be a lot of teams, drivers and sponsors knocking each other over to get to the nearest lifeboat should their be red sky at morning in 2012.

So what should be considered a successful 2012 Nationwide Series season for Patrick?

A top-15 finish in the points is more than doable, considering the sparse amount of legit full-time entries running for a championship. She could even pull off a win at a restrictor plate track with a little help from her bevy of teammates in and around the Hendrick Motorsports/JR Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing umbrella. If she gets the feel and balance of the cars figured out, a win at an intermediate track isn’t totally out of the question either — and of course, there’s no shame in winning races on fuel mileage. Based on that criteria, Patrick would be in pretty solid standing — heck, just ask Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski or Brian Vickers.

Her biggest test will simply be learning all the tracks, how the car changes during a race, what to look for, what to ask for, staking her flag in the ground and not giving way to other drivers just because she’s “a girl.” Patrick has already done that twice in 2011 with James Buescher and Ryan Truex. Those two incidents didn’t turn out so hot, but they did serve to prove that she can take a hit and keep getting back up.

Besides, if all else fails, she’ll still probably fare better than Steven Wallace and not run into too many other cars. But God help them if anyone tries to pull her hair …
 

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines Danica Patrick's decision to move to NASCAR full-time in 2012 and what we should expect from her going forward.</p>

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