Danica Patrick’s full-time entry into NASCAR in 2012 is one of the most-hyped events in years, to the delight of many fans and to the consternation of many others.
What should we expect from the driver whose name recognition with the general public ranks up with Dale Earnhardt Jr., but whose results on the track have been merely middling?
The one certain thing is that Patrick will get more media attention than her performance on the track warrants—especially if she somehow manages to win a race. That much goes without saying that the GoDaddy.com super girl, who recently set a record for the all-time most appearances in Super Bowl ads. NASCAR is hoping that Patrick can bring a bunch of fans to the track—and the TV screen—that wouldn’t normally follow the sport.
That’s all well and good, but serious NASCAR fans only care about what happens on the track. Here are my predictions for what to expect in several aspects of Patrick's first year as a full-time NASCAR driver.
The immediate question is: How will she perform in the Daytona 500?
The odds are stacked against her. For starters, this will be her first Sprint Cup race. In addition, she’ll be working with a crew chief (Greg Zipadelli) for the first time. Finally, she’s driving for a new race team that is operating out of two different shops in an unusual arrangement the Stewart-Haas Racing struck up with Tommy Baldwin Racing. But at least she’ll be locked into the starting field thanks to that deal.
Despite all the factors against success, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Patrick bring home a top-10 in the Daytona 500. She ran well in her Nationwide start at Daytona last July, and seemed to quickly pick up on how to navigate in the draft. In that race, she ran much of the time with Tony Stewart. If the two of them can hook up in the 500, the sky’s the limit.
I wouldn’t exactly advise picking the No. 10 for your Daytona 500 fantasy roster, but hey— anything can happen at restrictor-plate races.
What about the rest of Patrick’s 10-race Sprint Cup slate in 2012?
Don’t expect too much.
The Sprint Cup Series is a steep learning curve for any driver. The competition top-to-bottom is arguably stronger than what is seen in any other racing series in the world. Patrick did fairly well in her second season of part-time Nationwide competition in 2011, but jumping to NASCAR’s highest level will be much more difficult.
Patrick herself acknowledged that top 20 might be a realistic goal, and I concur. GoDaddy fans can forget about seeing her run up front or challenge for wins—this year, at least. The best I see for her is adding one additional Sprint Cup top-10 in her nine races after Daytona.
Of course, Patrick will spend the bulk of her time running in the Nationwide Series, and her main focus for the season will be on that series.
Can she win a Nationwide race?
That would be quite an achievement. No woman has ever won a NASCAR race at the national touring series level.
However, I do think it’s a possibility for Patrick to become the first. The JR Motorsports equipment she’ll be driving is fully capable of winning races, as Brad Keselowski proved back in 2009-2010. I give her a 50/50 shot at taking home a checkered flag in 2012.
What about the NNS title?
Beginning with last season, Cup regulars are no longer eligible to run for the Nationwide title, giving hope to the top-tier Nationwide-only drivers.
But while I think Patrick will have a consistent year and threaten for double-digit top-10s, I don’t think she’ll seriously contend for the series title. Look for her to finish the year in fifth to seventh place, behind 2011 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JRM teammate Cole Whitt, 2011 series runner-up Elliott Sadler, RCR newcomer (and 2011 CWTS champion) Austin Dillon and perhaps Justin Allgaier of Turner Motorsports.
One of the biggest questions for the season is how will Patrick fit in as "one of the boys”—after all, she hardly fits the typical NASCAR driver profile.
I think that Patrick will be able to find her place in the male-dominated sport. To begin with, she's driving for the sport’s most popular figure, Earnhardt Jr. In addition, she’ll be working with well-established veteran crew chiefs whom she will respect, and from whom she will receive respect: Tony Eury Jr. in the Nationwide Series (Dale Jr.’s cousin and former crew chief) and Greg Zipadelli on the Cup side (a two-time championship winner with Tony Stewart).
Of course, Patrick has been known for getting into her fair share of confrontations, despite her petite stature—ask Ryan Briscoe if you need confirmation. And just last year in the Nationwide Series she blamed Ryan Truex for a wreck at Bristol.
So will we be seeing any extra-curricular issues from Patrick in 2012?
I expect a squabble or two, and if we’re lucky, maybe with one of the Busch Bros—wouldn't that be fun?
But for the most part, look for Patrick to try to keep a low profile—not that keeping out of the spotlight will be even possible for her. She’ll get all the media attention she can handle, without needing to manufacture any on her own.
As far as plans for 2013, it’s never too early to speculate. If all goes reasonably well this season, the plan is to move on up to NSCS full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing. This might be a bit premature, but GoDaddy will want it and Patrick isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
Let’s go racing, boys (and—girl)!