Ingram: Decision Time Has Arrived For Danica Patrick

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 31 2009
Teammates Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan talk racing at Milwaukee. How long will they be teammates?

Teammates Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan talk racing at Milwaukee. How long will they be teammates?

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent 

The day after Sunday’s IRL race in Milwaukee marks the starting line of contract negotiations for Danica Patrick. Free to talk with teams in NASCAR, will she elect to continue in IndyCars? More than likely.

 A third-place finish in the Indy 500 by Patrick has no doubt increased her confidence about winning the Borg Warner trophy and improved her appeal to IndyCar team owners. She’s no longer a novelty.

“I’m glad that people are seeing it more like just a good finish from a good driver,” said Patrick after Indy, responding to the suggestion she was being regarded in the same frame as the other front runners.

But Danica is a diva and they’re not. Her income is reported at $7 million per year, much of it coming from the diminutive driver’s high profile, low cut appearances and endorsements. The equation might shift toward more prize money with a move to NASCAR, but at the cost of becoming just a pretty face.

What are the chances of Patrick winning the Daytona 500 versus the Indy 500, where she’s finished in the Top 10 four of her first five years?

 The Americana of Indy coupled with Patrick’s unique appeal might even take the race to new heights of appreciation for its speed and tradition if she won the 500. She could become the toast of the little town of Speedway, Indiana and America’s small town girl grown very big.

If she won at Daytona, she might even have to dodge a few beer cans.

The driver herself has long had a strong connection to Indy. As a youngster in karting Patrick regularly told adults, “I’m going to win the Indy 500.”  In the days leading up to this year’s race, the native of Roscoe, Ill., acknowledged that her racing hearth can be found at 16th St. and Georgetown Rd. “This is my home,” she said. 

During the last round of contract negotiations three years ago, her father and manager T.J. Patrick fanned the NASCAR flames by responding positively to questions from reporters about Danica switching to NASCAR. On that occasion – the height of Sprint Cup popularity – she made the transition from Rahal Letterman Racing to Andretti Green Racing, where she landed her first victory a year later.

Now the driver herself is welcoming the questions about NASCAR. There’s reason to believe NASCAR team owners would welcome Danica’s star power and sponsor appeal at the expense of the Indy Racing League. But would these same team owners also see her as a way to boost the budget moreso than as a potential winner of the Daytona 500?

Already the chauvinists among the stock car set in NASCAR have suggested Patrick would have to run a full season in the Nationwide Series before moving up to the Cup. In other words, suddenly her car control is not in the same ballpark as the other guys who have moved over from IndyCar racing.

These same IndyCar refugees are a watchword for Patrick as well. If Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish have struggled in NASCAR with trusted team owners, why wouldn’t Patrick face the same problem or worse with a new team and car owner? Franchitti and Hornish have also set another kind of example, this one more positive. Win at Indy first, then move to NASCAR, which keeps the door open for a return if necessary.

Patrick has established herself among her fellow drivers in IndyCar on and off the track. From the “not on my watch” types like Ed Carpenter and Scott Dixon, she now gets the consideration of a veteran opponent versus the good-bye girl treatment.

Teammates Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan have become friends off the track as well as collaborators on chassis preparation. This year’s Indy wasn’t the first time she has finished ahead of them on any given day and probably not the last.

The only question is whether Andretti Green can add enough incentive to her current contract to keep her. Would she leave AGR for any team other than those owned by perennial Indy front runners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi? They may or may not want to add a third car for her, although she’s certain to draw sponsorship. Penske and Ganassi each have stock car operations, which make a possible alliance more intriguing.

There’s a larger question that continues to loom. What will it take for Patrick to win at Indy and add to her victory total elsewhere? That’s summed up in three words: you go girl.

Patrick needs to be more aggressive, especially in high speed traffic on ovals. The only time she’s gotten aggressive at Indy has been in solo qualifying or towards the end of the event. She may not make ill-conceived maneuvers, on the one hand, but the other guys still know she’s a tad tentative in heavy traffic. She missed a shot at second when Dan Wheldon beat her to the low line at Turn 1, for instance, on the last re-start.

As for road and street circuits, there’s no reason why the former runner-up in the Formula Ford Festival can’t man up to winning on the left and right turn facilities. By her own admission, Patrick says qualifying has hurt her because she doesn’t find the magical lap when needed during the IndyCar qualifying procedure.

AGR co-owners Kim Green and Michael Andretti know these traits of Patrick, who has been described by Green as brave and more calm under dangerous conditions than her teammates. The team owners have every reason to believe she can get over the hurdles that prevent her from winning more races. Plus, her emphasis on process versus bonzai charges invariably piles up a lot of laps and points, which also makes her championship material. Given that team owner Andretti is now calling her pit strategy, it’s clear he has a keen interest in retaining Patrick.

In the meantime, the beginning of Patrick’s silly season and the ongoing inevitable media parade will be an opportunity to remind all concerned that her name recognition trails only Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

If Patrick won the Indy 500, she might even pass those guys, too. 

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.



| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 31 2009
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