Ingram: Danica Cuts Her Own NASCAR Path
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
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 email@example.com Comments