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Ingram: Danica Cuts Her Own NASCAR Path

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 23 2011

Danica Patrick appears headed to NASCAR full time. How will she do in a stock car? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

Shortly we’ll hear all the details – team owners, the schedule, etc. – in the case of Danica Patrick moving from IndyCar to NASCAR as a full-time driver.

Which type of NASCAR convert will her case turn out to be? Will it turn out like Dario Franchitti, who came and went in short order? Will it be the case of Sam Hornish, Jr., who has come, accomplished little but is not yet gone? Or will it be more like A.J. Allmendinger, who has fashioned himself into a competent NASCAR driver, one who might one day win a race on a road course?

The answer: none of the above.

Although they share the history of leaving the Andretti team, Patrick will not have the problems of Franchitti once she moves to the Sprint Cup, likely starting with selected races next season, possibly including the Daytona 500.

By the end of 2007, Franchitti had burned his bridges with team owner Michael Andretti and his partners at the time. Switching to NASCAR with Chip Ganassi seemed like a logical move, given the doldrums of IndyCar and the shortage of opportunities. When sponsorship didn’t pan out, neither did the NASCAR ride before Franchitti switched across to Ganassi’s potent Target-backed IndyCar team after just one season.

Patrick, by contrast, brings multi-million dollar sponsorship with her and will have a multi-year deal that includes both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.

As a kart racer, Patrick couldn’t beat Hornish, Jr., who went on to win the Indy 500. So why would we expect Patrick to improve on Hornish Jr.’s record in NASCAR? Once again, her circumstances are different. Where Hornish Jr. more or less took one for the team by moving to the Sprint Cup at the behest of his employer Roger Penske, Patrick began exploring NASCAR racing under her own motivation and management team.

Patrick and her group listened carefully and recognized the value of starting in the Nationwide Series with a limited schedule. Not only has Patrick managed her own expectations, but the public perception is that she’s making steady progress since her first start in 2010.

Hornish Jr., on the other hand, went straight to the Sprint Cup – because that’s what his team owner needed – and improved only in occasional fits with a lot of really bad starts. By contrast, Patrick is the consummate index racer, a driver who brings herself up to speed very carefully and avoids crashing a lot. It’s an approach that has paid off in terms of expectations, TV time and sponsorship. Above all, lots of seat time has helped her improve as a race car driver, including her stock car skills.

A former winner in Champ Car, Allmendinger is a threat to win on some ovals and the road courses as long as he has a good team providing his cars (and Kurt Busch is not following him into the Inner Loop at Watkins Glen). Does Patrick have the benefit of being likely to win on certain tracks in NASCAR such as road courses?

That’s perhaps the toughest question to answer. Other than the obvious fact she has a very high profile in the media, in many respects, Patrick fits the Allmendinger mold when it comes to her approach to NASCAR: work hard, keep your head down and index yourself up to speed on the track. But are there tracks where she might be expected to excel?

Given her consistency in the Indy 500 in both qualifying and the race, Patrick can be expected to do well at two of NASCAR’s fastest and highest profile tracks – Daytona and Talladega. Not all race car drivers are comfortable at the highest rates of speed, but Patrick has proved she’s among those who are. She has impeccable balance, doesn’t scare easily, rarely gets in over her head and loves the limelight provided by big events.

The draft is the great equalizer at Daytona and Talladega, too. Not everybody intuitively grasps the draft in NASCAR on a level that is extraordinary enough to win on the big tracks and the jury is still out for Patrick in that respect. (See former Indy car and Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who gains/loses more positions in the draft due to quick thinking/impatience than any driver in NASCAR.)

On the road courses, Patrick has done relatively poorly in IndyCar and that’s not likely to change in NASCAR despite her depth of experience. That’s a bit of a puzzle for this writer. Patrick was a very talented road racer as a youngster and finished second in the highly competitive Formula Ford Festival in England. On the other hand, teammate Jon Fogarty – now of Red Dragon fame in the Grand-Am –ran circles around her in the Atlantic Series. And, she’s rarely been a factor in IndyCar road course events. (Sorry, I don’t buy the physical strength issue. It’s like Janet Guthrie once said, you don’t carry the car. You drive it.)

Patrick has become an ovalist. Although she may have an advantage at places like Road America or Montreal against the relatively unskilled road racers in the Nationwide Series, she’ll still have to beat the guest drivers. On the other hand, she can gain valuable points on road courses in the Nationwide Series.

If she runs a full Nationwide schedule, I don’t consider Patrick a candidate to win a championship, however, because there are too many hot-headed young drivers who will indulge their resentment about the woman with a guaranteed path to the Sprint Cup and pay their lack of respect to her fenders on ovals.

It has been ever thus for Patrick, who eventually took her payback for the same sort of anti-girl problem in IndyCar by beating all the boys at Twin Ring Motegi. What the future holds in NASCAR remains to be seen. But if the past is prologue, it never pays to underestimate Danica Patrick.

Quote of the Week: “NASCAR isn’t used to being put on the third page of USA Today, which means they’ll probably be trying to hire Danica away from us.” – Bobby Rahal, commenting in Sports Illustrated shortly after DanicaMania first hit in 2005.

See ya! …At the races.

–Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 23 2011
5 Comments

5 Comments »

  • steven says:

    Beating all the boys at Motegi?? The fast guys stopped for fuel and Helio pulled over and let her go by. Is that her claim to fame? This endless fawning by the media won’t stop until she is completely over her head fulltime in Cup.

    • john says:

      Yes her one win was fuel mileage. So what? Watched much IRL lately? This season has been slightly different, in that a few other drivers are actually winning some races, but let’s look at the facts:

      1. Danica drives for Andretti-Green. The season she won, AGR was somewhat competitive. TK also won a race, and they finished 3rd and 6th in the standings. In that season, almost every race was won by Ganassi or Penske drivers, as was the championship.

      2. The following year begins an even more ridiculous level of domination for Penske and Ganassi, winning every single race but one (Justin Wilson at the Glen, winning on pit strategy). Every other race is won by Ganassi or Penske drivers. Danica is the highest finishing NON-”Big 2″ driver in the point standings, beating Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

      3. 2010, Penske and Ganassi drivers win every single race and the championship, except for a pit strategy win for RHR at Long Beach, and an admittedly legit, badass win by TK at Iowa. Danica runs kinda poorly.

      And this year, thankfully, we’re seeing a handful of drivers who are somewhat competitive against The Big 2. Danica’s inconsistent, but is no doubt distracted by racing Nationwide too.

      My point in all this? Last time I checked, there are only four “fast guys” in Indycar, and the other 20-some drivers can’t beat them at all either, so why aren’t Danica haters also whining about Marco Andretti, Oriol Servia, Ed Carpenter and EJ Viso never winning anything?

      Jenson Button had something like 10 years of a disaster of a career, going nowhere (other than one strategy win in the wet–interesting parallel) with crap team after crap team, and then finally got put in a good car, won races and a championship, and now he drives for one of the best teams and is proving to be as good or better than anyone. Were there Jenson Haters too?

  • Chris Fiegler says:

    Would It Be Weird or Funny if the Headlines on Sunday Night February 26,2012 Danica Patrick wins the Daytona 500?

  • PhilipJames says:

    It is too bad that short sighted people take shots at Danica. She may not be a Jimmy Johnson or one of the other great SPRINT car drivers, but you can’t get around the fact that at this moment and for a little while she has been the best female race car driver in the world.
    This is a sport dominated and I mean dominated, by men.
    There are other female drivers, but, as in anything in life, they are not as high up the ladder as Danica.
    I find it amazing that everyone is not rooting for her to do well.
    Yes, the testosterone males will get all bitchy because she uses her feminine wiles to get ahead, but forget that they are all out there, Danica included, in trying to drum up sponsorship money to be able to race.
    Car racing is made up of a lot of things…. what else is new in this world?
    Driving skills, personality, marketing, the ability of the racing team the driver belongs to because without a great car not even a great driver can win, and of course, luck.
    Danica has combined all those… except recently on the team as Andretti is not giving any of their drivers consistently great cars for races… its not only Danica, but look at where the whole team is running. In Indycar it is the two top teams and then the also rans. And has been for a number of year, no matter what anyone says.
    Danica is good enough to beat most of the Nationwide drivers and if and when she goes to Sprint, she will be better than most of the 30-some drivers that are in each race.
    Will she win in Nationwide? Yes. Will she win a lot… well, we will see won’t we?
    If and when she goes to Sprint… well, that is a little ways away. But, for the sake of building the viewership and attendance at races, which generates more money for ALL the teams and drivers and track owners… I sure hope she does well there too.
    If you like racing, don’t you want it to grow? And if Danica can help do that, what’s the problem?

  • john says:

    The hate for her is really unwarranted, it’s the TV network’s over-saturation of coverage of her that’s the problem. I would think that, like Dale Jr coverage after he got in the 88, it will eventually wane a little.

    She’s performing right around where any driver would be, for the first time in stockcars, and a total of, what, 15-16 races over 2 years? She likely would be doing even better if she had focused on stockcar racing, like she now will.

    She has a winning team and a winning crew chief, and a huge sponsor. I fully expect to see her finish top 6-7 in point next season, and possibly contend for wins. And until her brakes exploded, she was in the top 10 at Montreal, making great passes and generally driving well.