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Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Amanda Brahler
Will she or won’t she? That has been the question surrounding Danica Patrick and her possible jump from open-wheeled machines to stock cars ever since the pint-sized spark plug broke onto the auto racing scene in America. After five seasons in the IndyCar Series and only one race win, the question loomed larger than ever, as speculation swirled last summer that her jump to NASCAR was imminent after she was spotted visiting Tony Stewart’s race shop in North Carolina.
The discussions continued as the heat of the summer turned into a winter chill. Despite the constant buzz and “breaking news” from ESPN that a deal was done, nothing materialized and news became stagnant, with nothing more than speculation repeatedly eating up the headlines, placed right next to year-in-review wrap-up pieces.
With build-up surrounding a national appearance on Good Morning America at the end of November, and while the NASCAR media was on its way to Las Vegas and the awards ceremony, some thought an announcement was forthcoming. However, when all was said and done, Patrick had no NASCAR endeavors to announce.
Hey, if nothing else, she knows how to get people’s attention.
The 27-year-old’s “big” GMA announcement that caused a whirlwind of press after months of speculation turned out to be nothing more than a two-year extension with an additional third year as an option with car owner Michael Andretti and the Andretti Autosport team in the IndyCar Series. That, however, didn’t eliminate the possibility of her moving to stocks, as long as the races she ran fell on off-IndyCar weekends. Patrick’s priority, she said, was to win the Indy 500. But with three more possible opportunities aligned, it became clear that she was free to focus on other things, such as expanding her “brand” across the sometimes-blurred lines of the racing business.
In tandem with her new contract, Patrick announced primary sponsorship from GoDaddy.com. Ironically, GoDaddy is the same company that sponsored Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team. The branding moved from JRM to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team on the Cup level, and driver Mark Martin for a 20-race deal in 2010. In fact, after her contract details were disclosed, her website was updated, and early visitors were greeted with a picture of Patrick that, oddly enough, featured her wearing what appeared to be a JR Motorsports uniform with Chevrolet and Nationwide Series logos. The image was promptly taken down and replaced with a photo in a GoDaddy-green IRL suit, but its posting was far from unnoticed, and the question evolved from ‘Will she or won’t she?’ to ‘When will she?’
“I’ve made no mystery that I’m curious about NASCAR and I would like to do it,” Patrick said in a media teleconference shortly after her IndyCar announcement. “As a driver, if I had the chance to be able to run in both series and try it and challenge myself, I would like to do that.”
Though the discussions between the two parties were never denied — and oddly, were more open than any other worst-kept secret in recent years — it seemed strange that the monumental announcement continued to be put off. What exactly was the point of all of the buildup? Did they expect fans to become more interested or did they want to prove Danica’s appeal to the media and in turn, pull in more sponsorship interest? Or was this simply a matter of two parties not being able to get on the same page? Some reports stated that Danica was looking for a six-figure sum per race, a number unheard of in Nationwide competition.
And so it came to pass on Dec. 8, that Patrick announced a two-year deal to drive a partial schedule — believed to be in the 12-to-15-race range — for JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rick Hendrick, Kelley Earnhardt and Tony Eury Jr. Of course, she will be sponsored by GoDaddy.com and will bring her familiar No. 7 along with her, replacing the No. 5.
“It’s been a long time coming, but the stars finally aligned for me with GoDaddy and JRM,” Patrick said just before making her announcement. “I have always said I love to drive, and if I could make it work to race in both IndyCar and NASCAR — with the right sponsor, like GoDaddy.com and the right team, like JRM — then I’d love to drive in NASCAR.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Patrick and Earnhardt are set to team up. The two share the same burden within their respective racing divisions: being tagged as over-hyped fan favorites who lack statistical support to back up all of the sponsorship dollars and fuss. Fans may adore them and sponsors may be able to use them to sell product, but the bottom line is that neither is a regular visitor to Victory Lane and neither has been able to earn the moniker of champion at the highest level. They’ve also both seemingly mastered the art of effortlessly playing the media like a fiddle, feeding the inquisitive types just enough to continually eat up column space, but not enough to break a story wide open.
Earnhardt, while openly embracing Patrick and what she could bring to not only his team, but the sport as a whole, has gone on the record as saying that despite his involvement with the team, his general manager and sister, Kelley, is the one responsible for putting the deal together.
“She’s going to drive stock cars for somebody someday, (and) I think it’s exciting,” Earnhardt said. “She would be great for our sport. She wants to see what’s up.”
But then when the announcement finally came, it was still a bunch of nothing, because everything announced had long been expected. The meat — “How many races? When? Where?” — was left out.
The bottom line is that she is, in fact, racing for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series. So what does Patrick’s transition to stock car racing actually mean? What will her presence and performance bring to the competition within the Nationwide Series garage?
More of the same, to be honest. Patrick’s addition would simply continue a trend, albeit a bit changed, but the overall tone would continue to cast a shadow on the younger and less prominent teams, drivers and talent within the Nationwide garage.
Take her expected teammate, Kelly Bires. Bires was said to be manning the No. 88 JRM machine, which would mark his first full season in a realistically competitive car. In his early 20s, Bires, like many other younger drivers, has been overshadowed in his previous three seasons thanks to the Sprint Cup Series drivers who run either partial or complete seasons. In his debut year in Nationwide competition, Bires ran for a Nationwide-only team, JTG-Daugherty Racing, before being forced into free agency after the team could not secure funding the following season. In 2009, he ran part-time for a handful of teams, including Kevin Harvick, Inc., and Braun Racing. For younger drivers like Bires, that trend will continue — only the focus shifts from “the Cup drivers” to “the girl.”
More disturbing is the revelation made by Earnhardt Jr. that the familiar No. 88 Nationwide team may have to resort to a partial season, as funding is in short supply even for an owner named Earnhardt. Could the focus of importing a commodity like Patrick be hindering JR Motorsports’ other entry? It’s likely, though not clear.
In all fairness to Patrick, her expectations — beyond the speculated salary — seem to be realistic: “In all of the talks over the summer, (and) in meeting with people, there was a lot of emphasis on learning, so I’d be very prepared to start small and grow and really learn the cars.”
The suggestions more than likely stem from drivers like Stewart who have made the competitive transition from open wheelers to stocks and could easily serve in a mentoring role to Patrick. Stewart won the Indy Racing League championship in 1997 before making his move over to NASCAR. He did it gradually, running a part-time effort in what was then the Busch Series while still running Indy cars. Once he made the transition full bore, he made it look easy, having compiled two Sprint Cup Series titles and nearly 40 race wins.
Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti have also made the move, albeit with less success. But they are different than Danica. All have won the Indy 500, something she still has on her to-do list. Hornish Jr. and Franchitti have also won championships. The closest she’s come was a fifth-place showing in the point standings last year, a year that, while consistent, boasted zero wins.
But the qualities Danica has that her predecessors lacked — at least at her level — are marketing pull and fan appeal. Despite her lack of on-track success, she’s a sponsor’s dream: young, attractive and relatable. But she’s also a standout for the mere fact that she is a female, and at an elite level in the racing world, that’s a unique quality. Despite diversity’s gains in auto racing, thanks to her own effort and that of NHRA legend John Force’s daughter, Ashley, the fact remains that female drivers are few and far between in the upper echelons of motorsports.
Patrick uses her qualities — that marketability and those looks — to cross over from mediocre driver to calendar-girl pinup sensation. She’s often traded her firesuit for a swimsuit and made a hefty chunk of change in doing so. You can’t blame her for following the saying that if you’ve got it, flaunt it, because that is what has made her the brand that is “Danica.” She knows the whirlwind of interest around her and what she’s able to bring to the table. That recognition is why a move to NASCAR makes sense. No, she may not challenge for race wins, and she will certainly tear up a car or 10 as she learns her way in the heavier, full-bodied machines, but she brings sponsors and throngs of fans — or possibly throngs of curious onlookers.
Not only do teams want her for that reason, but NASCAR’s sanctioning body does as well. After years of trying to establish a diversity program, the sport lags decades behind its contemporaries, and Patrick would unquestionably be its biggest land yet. And if nothing else, the one-woman marketing machine that is Danica would bring with her something NASCAR desperately needs right now: dollars and viewers.
“She has a lot of talent,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said last November at the season-ending Ford 400. “She will be good for NASCAR. How well she will perform is like any other driver that comes through the front door and sits in the car — you never know until they do it. She probably doesn’t know (either). We’ll see what the future brings, but she’s certainly very welcome in NASCAR. I’ve told her that directly and I know others have, too.”
Though many females have tried before, none has remained in the series long. Shawna Robinson, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Erin Crocker are just three who have recently worked their way up to at least score a shot at the big time. All three have fizzled out, though, the victims of less-than-ideal marketing personas.
Patrick however, has graced the pages of men’s magazines in provocative poses and appeared in numerous television commercials, promoting a variety of products for corporate America. She has selling power. And with the endorsements come followers. People want to see her in front of a camera and on a race track. Some, because she’s pretty; some, to see her fail; others to see her succeed. But in the end, the bottom line is the same: They want to see her.
This desire by the all-powerful consumer is what lures sponsors toward the phenomenon and away from those possibly more talented Nationwide Series regulars and Cup-invaders alike. It’s an ugly cycle that has plagued the series since the new millennium — marketing over talent — and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
With Patrick, it will continue, only on a new and heretofore never explored plateau.
That alone causes debate about the health of the series once known as a place to prove a driver’s worth or jumpstart his or her career. But another, more fundamental question has arisen: Can dainty Danica muscle a heavy stock car? After years of steering a downforce-laden, ultra-sensitive 1,300-pound IndyCar, will she find the 3,400-pound beasts that drive like bulldozers to be too much for her physically? The answer lies in the females who have come before her: A long period of adjustment will be required, but her grace period will no doubt be longer than any female’s in the past. Her on-track rope with other drivers may not be, though.
The feisty temperament that has become her calling card will not go over well with the good ol’ boys. There will be no stomping down pit road in front of a packed grandstand to confront another driver’s pit crew or foul-mouthed banter with another driver in the garage. Actually, there may be, but there are also fenders on these cars — fenders that allow drivers to send a message or teach one another a lesson the hard way should they see fit.
With that in mind, a move to a Hendrick-supported team would be the perfect setting for Patrick to learn the mindset of the sport. HMS is an operation that does not tolerate anything less than an exemplary on- and off-track image. You do it the right way — the Hendrick way — or you’re shown the door. Temper-tantrums and signs of disrespect may fly in other shops, but not on Papa Joe Boulevard.
Patrick tested a JR Motorsports-prepared car on Dec. 13 at Walt Disney World Speedway, familiarizing herself with the foreign feel of a stock car. The test was low key, so much so in fact, that the racing media wasn’t even aware of it until it hit Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Facebook page.
“It’s come up in the past to run NASCAR, and I never really was … my heart wasn’t there,” Danica says. “I didn’t want to at all. I wasn’t really curious.
“I’ve always thought that the most important thing for me in my career is that I go with my gut and I go with what I want and not worry about the rest. And so now my curiosity is there and I’d like to just try it, and I’d like to see how I get on with the cars. I just think the racing looks fun.”
Whether or not she actually has fun adjusting to the rigorous schedule, the heavier cars and tough competition that is far from gentlemanly, she more than likely won’t mind cashing the checks that come along with it. The marketing machine that is Danica Patrick is coming to NASCAR.