When discussions began earlier this year that Indy Racing League driver Danica Patrick was coming to NASCAR, I was ready to write her off due to her image.
But with her joining JR Motorsports and the discussions following, part of me wants to believe in her and give her a chance. Part of me is still skeptical. So why is Patrick coming to NASCAR? Is it for the money, or does she really want to try her hand at racing?
Mixed emotions fill the NASCAR garage area. Some are welcoming Patrick with open arms, while others are unsure if this is the best idea or not. Carl Edwards admitted at Sounds and Speed that he was hesitant at first, though he thinks it’ll bring good things to the sport.
"Honestly, at first I thought there's no way," Edwards said. "Then I heard just [Friday] my buddy was telling me at testing that she was really, really fast. You never know. What I've been saying from the beginning is for her to be successful over here would be a huge benefit not only for her and her sponsors, but for our whole sport, so it'd be great.
The chance of Patrick succeeding is what has Kyle Petty worried as it could leave a positive or negative impact on NASCAR.
"If she gets in that car and doesn't win races it's not the car, it's not the engines, it's not the team. They only changed one thing. Initially, she'll have an impact on the sport. If she's successful, she'll have a huge long-term impact on the sport," Petty said.
"But if she's not successful, the only impact she'll have on the sport is she wasted two or three years on a car that a good driver could have been in and could have been developing."
One of the key aspects behind Petty’s opinion is Patrick's success in the IRL compared to other drivers who have tried their hand at NASCAR. In comparing her stats to Tony Stewart’s and Juan Pablo Montoya’s, she hasn’t had the type of success that they experienced. Both Stewart and Montoya are past IRL champions while Patrick hasn’t won a championship and has only one race win which came due to fuel mileage.
Nobody can even begin to guess how she’ll do in NASCAR. Will she succeed like Stewart and Montoya or flop like Dario Franchitti? Racecar driver turned TV analyst Wally Dallenbach says we shouldn’t be worried about the numbers and look at the type of shot that she is getting at this.
"[Danica] is the first woman who is getting a fair shot in the sport," Dallenbach said. "No other woman has ever gotten the equipment she's going to be in.”
But Dallenbach also warns that it’ll be a steep learning curve. She’ll have lots to learn, including coming on to pit road with 40 other cars, which she has never done before.
SPEED analyst Robin Miller says that the learning curve starts right away due to her trying to run in both divisions.
"This shows me that maybe NASCAR is a little more desperate than I think they are if they think she's going to be the 'save-all' and 'cure-all,'" Miller said. "Danica will go through a huge learning process. She as a lot of spunk and talent, and there's no doubt about her abilities. She is as serious a racer as any guy. But this is something you can't do part-time. It's a full-time job.
"NASCAR is such a completely different animal. I'm just not sure you can jump back and forth, and do one for two months, take four or six months off, then come back and do it again and have any kind of rhythm or consistency, but we'll see."
Either way, car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going into this with an open mind.
"I'm going into it with an open mind. It's going to be an uphill battle for her," Earnhardt said. "But I think she can. She's a race car driver. She should be able to adapt and do whatever she needs to do. We're real happy with what we've seen, and we love her attitude. I don't know how she'll do, I really don't."
Is part of JRM Motorsports’ drive fueled by the money? They are still looking to find full-season sponsorship for Kelly Bires who will be driving the No. 88 fulltime in 2009. Kelley Earnhardt says that bringing her on board will get people watching them, and therefore, may result in sponsorship.
"Obviously, she elevates our program and elevates the sport," Kelley Earnhardt said. "It's going to have some different eyeballs on JR Motorsports, in a good way. Obviously, we're tied up with her on sponsorship, but it brings new light to JR Motorsports, so hopefully that will help us…
"It's very exciting. The branding and the stuff that we've done with Dale Jr.—to be where he is in the sport. It's equally exciting to bring her along and just have a new set of eyeballs watching and the female factor, with the young girls and the role model thing. I'm really excited about it."
IMG Senior Vice President Mike Dyer is already talking of meeting with JR Motorsports representatives and discussing possible ways to combine Earnhardt Jr. and Patrick together in marketing products. The deal with GoDaddy is already bringing in $5 million to $7 million for the season to JR Motorsports, putting them that much ahead of where they were before.
Though in reading more in-depth stories, you could see Kelley Earnhardt was also doing this to give Patrick a chance to live out her dream that Earnhardt didn’t get to live out herself. She, in exchange, is giving that chance now to Patrick becuse she doesn’t want to see another person losing out on their dream. Earnhardt knows in giving Patrick this chance that she’s allowing her to get into good equipment, which has rarely happen to any female who came into the sport of NASCAR.
"This really is the first female competitor to be backed with the right stuff," Earnhardt said following the announcement. "This is a championship-caliber team. We compete week in and week out for the win. So for her to be in the position she's in, she's got the best opportunity any female has ever gotten in our sport.
"Would I love to be doing it? Absolutely. I love NASCAR, I love the fans, I love what we can be...I love the challenge. So I definitely would love to be in her shoes. I love the competitiveness, I love the adrenalin rush that you feel when you get in a race car. I know what that feels like and can speak to that. I'd definitely like it to be me.”
Though for Kelley Earnhardt, she’s comfortable in her current positions as president of J.R. Motorsports and feels that position was what she was born to do.
Either way, no matter what is said or the intentions of her owners (whether it’s for the financial side or to truthfully give her a chance), Patrick says that she’s going to ignore all the publicity and focus at the job at hand.
"I really don't think a lot about that kind of stuff," Patrick said. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion—that's fine with me. My job is to prove to all the people that are around me that I'm committed, that I want to do this, that I'm willing to put in the right amount of effort, and that's all I have to do."
After seeing the effort she put into the ARCA test and how well she ran throughout the race, including keeping the car off the wall after a slide through the grass, my faith has changed. I am ready to give her a chance in Saturday’s Nationwide race to show her true talent.