It didn’t take Danica Patrick very long to become the darling of the Indycar Series. Her burst onto the scene in 2005 brought much-needed attention to a motorsport that had been playing second fiddle (if that) to NASCAR since 1996.
That changed in 2005 at Indianapolis, when Danica nearly won the pole, was a couple gallons of fuel away from winning the race (if she didn’t have to save fuel late in that run, she would’ve walked away from Dan Wheldon).
Finally, the sport of Indycar racing had a star that transcended the sport into the mainstream media. The 2005 Indianapolis 500, thanks in large part to Danica, drew a bigger television audience than NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. A buzz had come back to a series that desperately needed one.
However, the inevitable rumors of her jumping ship into a stock car have become more and more prevalent now that she’s in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing.
Each side has its perks: Indycar racing gives her a shot at winning (given her performance this year) and the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR gives her all the attention anyone could want and a large payday.
Everyone has an opinion on the matter. Open Wheel enthusiasts want her to stay since losing another star to the France family would be a heavy nail in the Open Wheel coffin. NASCAR wants her because of her celebrity and her status as a female racer, which NASCAR needs for its diversity program.
In all likelihood, this is a story that won’t reach a conclusion until the offseason and will see many twists and turns (and a few talking heads) along the way. There’s no way to see where it would end right now.
However, if Danica is smart, she’ll stay where she is: the Indycar Series.
First, look at what has happened to the last two Indycar stars to make the jump to NASCAR: Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. Each had credentials that surpassed Danica’s.
Hornish was a three-time Indycar champ with an Indy 500 win to his name. Franchitti was also an Indycar and Indy 500 champ. It made sense for each to at least try NASCAR.
The result: Franchitti was out of that series and back in Indycars before 2008 ended, and Hornish runs between 25th and 30th about every week.
Now, many have said their failures came from the teams they were on. Dario had signed with Chip Ganassi’s fledgling Cup outfit, while Sam continues to drive for Roger Penske’s team, which underperformed throughout 2008.
However, I think that theory can be put out to pasture when looking at the 2009 stats. Kurt Busch, in a Penske car, sits third in the standings with a win already. Hornish, however, is mired back in 30th right now. Penske’s equipment appears to be significantly better this year, but Hornish isn’t.
Should Danica make the move to NASCAR, it would take her more than a year and a half to learn how to drive a stock car. Plus, if she gets with a team that doesn’t have a lot of owner points to give her, she’ll run the risk of missing races; we all know how big of a hole that can be put a driver in.
In the time it would take her to learn the ways of stock car racing, she might run her reputation as a driver dry and be out of a ride, regardless of her prior success. (It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Roger Penske took Hornish of the car and replaced him with another driver; Justin Allgaier perhaps?)
From that standpoint alone, it would make sense for Danica Patrick to remain in the Indycar Series.
But there is another component to this story that makes me think it would make sense for her to stay in Indycars.
She has long since passed the point of becoming the best female racer major auto racing (aside from the NHRA) has seen. Now, she has the chance to be the lead driver in Indycar’s recovery from the split.
Whether it is fair or not, a female driver being a consistent race winner is a novelty in society (unless you follow drag racing). The attention Danica received for being a competitive female racer may be waning, but the attention she (and the series) would get for consistently winning and being a female racer wouldn’t wane...for a VERY long time.
If you don’t think Danica is close to winning, look at her stats over the past three races. She may not have led laps, but she has finishes of fourth, fifth, and third and sits 13 points off the lead. Plus, if she hadn’t been crashed out by Raphael Matos in St. Pete, she could easily be leading the standings right now. Be sure of this: More wins are coming.
The greatest drivers in any form of motorsport have been ones who could transcend their own series, taking it to new heights with them. We saw it with Richard Petty, who was NASCAR’s first big star (with the Hollywood looks to match his Southern gentleman prowess).
We saw it again with Dale Earnhardt Sr., who showed what marketing and a persona can do for the promotion of a driver and series.
Finally, we saw it once more with Jeff Gordon, whose good looks, wit, and charm helped lift NASCAR out of the Southeast and into mainstream America.
Am I saying Danica is as good as any of those three? Absolutely not; she has a way to go in that light. But, she has the opportunity to take Indycar racing on her back and lead it to new heights, as Petty, Earnhardt, and Gordon all did with NASCAR.
If Danica can do that, she’ll put herself on the same level as the other greats in motorsport history, doing her reputation much better than if she follows that large golden carrot NASCAR is going to dangle in front of her.
Of course, this can only happen if she keeps focusing on her Indycar efforts and stays in that series. If she does just that, I have no doubts that she’ll start winning, and Indycar will become relevant again.
The opportunity is on the table for you, Danica. It’s up to you to take it.