After two previous part-time seasons, plus a full-time slate in the Nationwide Series and a 10-race dabble in Sprint Cup racing this past season, Danica Patrick makes the jump to a full-time effort in Sprint Cup competition in 2013.
While she finished 10th in her first full Nationwide season in 2012, it's pretty clear that Patrick is still in a learning mode that may take another one or two seasons as she becomes further immersed in Cup racing.
But Patrick is not making the jump to Sprint Cup competition for giggles and grins. She wants to be a serious racer and competitor—and she certainly has the ability to do that given enough time and a lot more laps and races behind the wheel of a Cup car.
Still, we feel Patrick can—and will—make the Chase for the Sprint Cup within the next three to five seasons. We're not saying she'll win the championship, though, but she should be one of the 12 Chase contenders at some point.
Here's five reasons that back up our assessment. Even if she needs a full five years before she makes the Chase, so be it. One way or another, Patrick will make the Chase. It's just a matter of time.
It'll likely take Danica Patrick at least two to three years to get the hang of full-time Sprint Cup racing, but she's always been a fighter and a good student. She'll have to undergo a learning curve, but she will ultimately surprise some folks.
In fact, don't be surprised if she makes faster progress in the Cup series than some longtime holdovers have done, including drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and others.
In fact, we predict she makes the Chase either in 2015 or 2016, her third or fourth full-time Cup seasons, respectively.
We envision her finishing somewhere between 20th and 25th in 2013, jump up to between 13th and 15th in 2014 and then make a serious run at the Chase in her third or fourth year on the Cup circuit. In fact, it may be interesting to see which of the two biggest names to come to the Cup circuit full-time in 2013, Danica or Ricky Stenhouse Jr., makes the Chase first.
What's more, don't be surprised if Danica overtakes Dale Earnhardt Jr. only as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver over the next few years. And she actually may wind up winning a Cup championship—hey, we can dream, right?—before Junior does (if he ever does, that is).
Patrick has an organization behind her, Stewart Haas Racing, that will do everything in its power to help her succeed.
Stewart Haas Racing doesn't want to see her fail. If it did, it'd never have brought her on board in the first time.
Even with Kevin Harvick coming over to SHR in 2014, it won't necessarily affect Danica. If anything, having Harvick around will only help her, as they both have similar fiery personalities and very competitive natures.
Plus, having Tony Gibson as her crew chief could wind up being a significant asset in Patrick's development as a Sprint Cup driver. Driving for SHR and having Gibson making calls from atop the pit box have all the markings of a win-win for everyone involved in Patrick's ascension to full-time Sprint Cup competition.
Patrick couldn't have picked a much better organization to join forces with. She'll learn a great deal from a three-time champion, her boss Tony Stewart.
And she'll also learn a lot from Stewart Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli, who led Stewart to two of his three Cup championships.
Plus, there are others in the organization, including Matt Borland—reunited as crew chief with Ryan Newman for 2013—who can help her learn as well.
Patrick will have more than enough backup when she goes out to do battle in the Sprint Cup wars.
Patrick seems to have finally gotten IndyCar racing out of her system and placed it in her rear-view mirror.
She turned down an opportunity to race in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, citing that she wanted to devote herself solely to her Sprint Cup aspirations.
She deserves credit for that, indeed. NASCAR is her career now, not IndyCar.
That kind of resolve and determination will only help strengthen her focus and improvement.
Patrick's only IndyCar win came in Japan in 2008.
If Patrick can win at least a couple of races over the next few years, that will go a long way towards building up her confidence and self-esteem that she's not just a woman racing in Sprint Cup, but that she's actually a true racer racing in Sprint Cup.
Patrick is in a very significant role right now because she's a woman who wants to make it in a male-dominated world that, other than Janet Guthrie in the 1970s, has never really had a high-profile female in the driver ranks.
There's a lot of pressure on Patrick to succeed, but she's up to the task.
Ever since she left her home town of Roscoe, Il., she's been dealing with pressure every step of the way in her racing career. NASCAR is no different, and Patrick is approaching it no differently than the other series she's previously raced in.
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