Danica Patrick has signed another three-year deal to remain in the IndyCar Series with Andretti Green Racing, and it may be the wisest career move she's ever made.
After months of speculation that she would jump ship to NASCAR in 2010, the most successful female IndyCar driver of this decade decided to remain with her home of the past three years and attempt to build on her 2009 season, thus far the best of her still-young career.
Patrick currently sits 5th in the IndyCar points standings, with only the season finale at Homestead remaining. Every year of her career, she's improved in the standings, from her 12th place finish as a rookie in 2005 to a 6th place finish last year.
However, victories continue to elude the American, with her only win taking place in Japan last year. Not only that, the race featured a short field, as nine teams were in Long Beach contesting the Champ Car World Series finale. Not only that, the win was based on fuel mileage, as most of the leaders had to pit in the closing laps.
While the move to NASCAR's bigger stage might have seemed tempting at first glance, it almost certainly would have been a disaster that would have stunted Patrick's growth as a driver and potentially derailed her entire career. The odds against her success were stacked so high that ever being competitive would have been a long shot.
First of all, look at the recent records of open-wheel drivers to switch series. 2007 IRL champion Dario Franchitti's stock car experiment was an unmitigated failure. Three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. is still struggling after two years in the heavier stock cars.
Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve failed to stick around. Only Juan Montoya has had any ounce of success, and his only Sprint Cup win remains on a road course more than two years ago.
Simply put, driving an 1800-pound IndyCar is one thing; driving a 3600-pound Sprint Cup machine is another. If drivers with a combined five CART/IRL championships and 44 wins couldn't make the transition, how could we expect a driver who's done diddly squat in reasonably competitive equipment?
Sorry, folks, but if your only win came on a split weekend due to fuel mileage, you haven't done jack. I hold Danica to the same standard I would any other driver. If not for the fact that she's Danica Patrick, it's easy to imagine that she would have been out of the series a couple of years ago.
Second of all, Danica likely would have had to spend at least two seasons in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, or at the very least run a schedule similar to Ryan Newman's old ABC tour (ARCA/Busch/Cup). That likely wouldn't fly with one of the most marketable drivers in all of American motorsports, a driver whose ability to attract sponsorship is on par with Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's golden boy. (For a time, they even shared sponsorship: GoDaddy.com has backed both drivers.)
Third, Patrick has never run more than 18 races in one major-league season. The Sprint Cup Series, Patrick's presumed goal, runs 36 every year. Twice the amount of races, with many of NASCAR's events being longer than IndyCar's, is a huge adjustment for any driver. Not only that, the NASCAR season stretched ten months, from February to November; in IndyCar, it only stretches from April to October.
Danica Patrick made the right decision when she chose to stay in the IRL for another three years. She's got plenty of unfinished business in the open wheel cars. And I don't care how cash-strapped the NASCAR teams are—until she actually performs in an open-wheel car at the level of a championship-caliber driver, there's no reason that any team should consider her for a stock car ride.
Any team taking that chance on her would have been looking forward to failure.
Danica supporters, let's see where she is in 2012 before we bring up this whole stock car thing again, okay? We all know that she can talk the talk. I want to see if she can walk the walk.