In most other sports, having the most popular team/player winning on the sport's biggest stage would be great. For the IndyCar Series, it could mean trouble.
Every driver dreams of taking the checkered flag at Indianapolis. Over 700 of them have had the opportunity to race in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, with only 67 of them going on to win. With all eyes on the 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, what would it mean for the sport if Danica Patrick were able to break through and drink the milk this year?
It has been well documented that Danica is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Autosport. Her intentions are to head to NASCAR full-time after this season, whether it is the right move or not. Being competitive and winning is one thing, but the marketing and endorsement dollars in NASCAR make it almost impossible for her to stay in IndyCar.
Normally I try to stay away from the Danica Patrick saga, but this has more to do with the Series itself, once she is gone. She has obviously attracted many eye balls to the sport since she burst onto the scene.
But will those eyes follow her to NASCAR, or will they stay with the IndyCar Series? She has opened the door to some new fans, and if they decide they no longer wish to watch the sport without her, the series could suffer.
It's hard to say that where she finishes and how she does in this race alone will dictate her future, but there are a couple of interesting scenarios that could possibly play out.
The most obvious would be her departure after winning the race. If she wins the only thing that has really kept her in the series, why would she want to continue? A championship isn't as important as winning the Indy 500, and every driver will tell you the same thing.
There is a popular phrase in racing that goes something like "If you aren't first, you're last". Basically, if Danica finishes in sixth place, or 30th place, it likely won't be a significant difference to her. To her, you either win, or you don't.
While it is important to get as many points as possible, most teams and drivers will more than likely take the gamble if it means they have a chance at winning this: the biggest race in the world.
Now we have to put her in a much more interesting scenario. What if she were to get passed on the last lap of the race and finish second?
Her teammate Marco Andretti knows the feeling all too well, as he lost the race in the final hundred yards to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. If she finished in third just seconds behind the winner, would that eat at her for a long time?
When you come so close to reaching your lifelong goal, it should leave you with an itch that you can't scratch. Would it actually get to her so bad that she would decide to stay in the series?
Of course with the start time of the "500" being pushed up to noon, there is the option to try the double; something that has never been done. Tony Stewart was one of the most notable drivers to try this feat, but never really came close to the ultimate prize.
She wouldn't care too much about the NASCAR race in Charlotte, but the fact that she would be able to come in as a part-time driver and win the thing seems almost impossible.
For the sake of the series, they need her fans; more importantly, their wallets. There is no doubt that she demands a lot of attention because of her fan base, and marketing companies would love to partner with her because of that. To say that the sport is better off without her would be wrong, and that is not up for debate.
Sure, she only has that one gas-mileage win in Japan, but her importance to the series goes way beyond that. She has brought in so many sponsors, companies, fans, dollars, and excitement to the sport. It would be virtually impossible for another single driver to do those same things, no matter how many wins.
A win for Danica pretty much guarantees that she will be gone after the year, but maybe a second or third place finish could bring her back. She may already have her mind made up, which would be bad news for IndyCar.
The coverage around her this year may be even more extensive than ever, which is really saying something. I plan on spending the majority of my time during the coming days in the garages of other drivers, getting different perspectives about the field, the double-file restarts, and the 100th anniversary of the race.
While those things are all much more interesting than just focusing on Danica's last race, it is important to note that losing her will hurt the series in many different ways.