Danica Says Going With A Winner Is A Top Priority For Future

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 5 2009
Danica Patrick said Thursday she is considering a plethora of options for her driving future – including NASCAR.   (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Danica Patrick said Thursday she is considering a plethora of options for her driving future – including NASCAR. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Danica Patrick isn’t sure if she’s ready for a move to NASCAR or Formula One or perhaps to another team in the IndyCar Series.

“I don’t think there’s really a way to ever know if you’re ready until you try it,” Patrick said Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway, basically confirming her status as one of the top free-agents of racing’s 2009 “Silly Season.”

“I can tell you that I will be exploring all kinds of options for next year and beyond,” said Patrick, who is in her third year of driving for Andretti Green Racing. “This is a contract year for me and that’s really all I can say. I don’t know which direction it’s going to go. I really honestly can tell you that I really don’t know.”

Patrick held court during a news conference previewing Saturday night’s Bombardier Learjet 550k at TMS. And unlike recent seasons, Patrick will roll into the first night race of 2009 as a bona fide contender for the driver’s championship. Four consecutive top-five finishes, including a career-best third in the 93rd Indianapolis 500, has Patrick fourth in points, 22 behind leader and defending champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Patrick dropped no names of prospective NASCAR teams, and all but ruled-out jumping to the start-up United States Formula One group being organized in Charlotte for the 2010 season.

“I think we have to evaluate which teams are interested and then go backwards from there – what’s the deal entail, what do they want, what do I want? – all those details come into play,” said Patrick, 27. “The most important thing for me as a driver is to drive for a team that believes in me and that is competitive to win. And everything else seems to take care of itself when I’m in that position. So we’ll have to see.”

Patrick indicated, however, she does have definite ideas of how she would like a switch to NASCAR to play out. And the idea of working her way up through the Camping World Truck and/or Nationwide series is not high on her to-do list.

“As a driver that drives in the top level of open-wheel racing in the United States, or in North America, you know you want to jump from one top to another top,” Patrick said. “So I’d have to say that if that was the direction (NASCAR) that ends up coming up and that we choose, I’d prefer to do that. But I’m not so naïve that I won’t be open to other opportunities and other ideas that people that have been around for a lot longer than I have have to advise me. So I’ll be open.”

Patrick’s business affairs are now being handled by IMG and agent David Zucker. Patrick said the switch was made for more “brand direction.” An Indy Racing League source speculated that Patrick currently is making between $5 million and $7 million per year, including her various endorsements. A deal with a top-shelf NASCAR team might allow Patrick to double her salary – and make the move a no-brainer. One possible option, the source said, would be a start-up/fourth team with Joe Gibbs Racing.

For her part, Patrick said the chatter about possibly switching to NASCAR has not yet become a distraction.

“I think it’s not as though I didn’t know it was coming this year,” Patrick said. “And it’s been a pretty good year so far. So it’s not distracting for me because I have created a really good group around me, all around me, everybody that’s involved, that takes care of those kinds of things so I don’t have to worry about it. I am not the one making calls. I am not the one receiving calls. It has nothing to do with me. I’m going to hear about it but it’s really not my concern.

“The best thing I can do – I know this is the best thing but it’s also been told to me many times – is don’t worry about it. ‘Let us do our job. You go out there and win races and we’ll be good.’ So that’s what I’m going to do.”

Fred Nation, executive vice president of communications for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said Danica ranks up there with three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves as the series’ premier attractions.

“And we want her to stay, but we also realize she’s the one that will make the decision in what she deems is in her best interest,” Nation said. “Most of the people in the IRL are optimistic that with the skills she has shown on the track, it’s only a matter of time when she’s one of the top winners in the series.  And we’re optimistic she’ll want to pursue her dream of winning the Indy 500.”

Indeed, Patrick’s third-place finish at IMS on May 24th was the highest by a woman in race history.

“My goals are from the first time I came into IndyCar, I think that it’s been to win races as much as possible,” Patrick said. “Win the Indy 500, win the championship – those are all goals for me from the beginning. It’s just that it’s probably more realistic now. So, I can’t say that they’re any different, it’s just happening.”

For recent history, Patrick can compare career paths with Dario Franchitti. The Scotsman won the Indy 500 in 2007, and the series championship, before opting to jump to NASCAR. But the experiment with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates ended abruptly last summer, when lack of sponsorship shut down Franchitti’s Dodge team.

Dario’s advice for Danica?

“I would say it’s the same for any driver to swap from any series, from NASCAR or Formula One…you have to be very, very careful of the moves you make,” said Franchitti, who is now Dixon’s teammate and third in series points. “Stock cars are so different than IndyCars, you’d have to make sure it was with a top team with kind of a wider progression almost. And you’d have to have an understanding team and good sponsor because there is that time of learning.

“From my own experiences, for a six-month period it’s all just so new and then you start to get it. But unfortunately, just as I was starting to get it the team was closed down. It’s very, very difficult because it is so different from what I grew up doing, and most of the people in this paddock grew up doing.”

Franchitti said anyone switching to a 3,400-pound stock car from a 1,565-pound IndyCar would need a year to learn how to “drive the cars properly.”

“I’d have to say the same thing would happen if you put one of the top drivers over there – Jimmie (Johnson’s) expressed interest in running the (Indy) 500,” Franchitti said. “If you put him over here, it would take time to acclimate, too. I think it is easier to drive a car with more grip rather than less, but it takes some time to come together. It is definitely tough. And I would say one thing – I hope to see a driver from open-wheel come over there – I think Tony Stewart was the last one – with top-line equipment. I don’t think any of us had that advantage.”

Franchitti, who won on the Streets of Long Beach in his second race back to IndyCar in April, believes Patrick is poised to make a serious run at the title this season.

“Yeah, Danica’s been really consistent this year,” Franchitti said. “The past couple of years you’ve seen those kind of flashes that it could happen. She won her first race last year (at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan), which is cool because she won me $200 on a bet I had with Chip and Felix. But yeah, if she can keep up that level of consistency she’s going to definitely be in the hunt. I think the next step is for her to be a regular sort of contender for wins week-in and week-out. I think she’s made tremendous progress, and she’s done a helluva job. “

Patrick agreed that a switch to NASCAR would hinge upon joining a Chase-caliber team – a luxury not afford either three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. or former CART champion and Formula One regular Juan Pablo Montoya.

“It’s just about realistic expectations, and I think that what it (previous switches) showed is that it is just another car,” Patrick said. “I mean, Sam’s getting the hang of it, Juan’s doing really well. There are definitely some drivers that aren’t on those top teams that are getting it and they’re doing well now. So I think you have to be around people that are willing to be patient in those moments.”

Patrick said her current run of consistency with AGR, led by team co-owner Michael Andretti, and the crew of the No. 7 Boost Mobile Dallara/Honda has made this an enjoyable season. But the rumor mill also has linked Patrick to a new satellite team owned by Roger Penkse or with a third Ganassi-owned team sponsored by Target, which could capitalize on her mainstream popularity.

“I want a car that can win, and a car that’s good in traffic,” Patrick said. “Maybe it doesn’t feel amazing by myself, but we’ve really been pushing to make sure that we’re good in traffic and we have a capable car. And another thing that we’ve been working really hard on as a group and me when we hit the track…when I go out there and get in the practice and the start of the race, it’s all about getting up high, getting around people, keeping your foot in it, getting in and out of the pits _ it’s all about really, really pushing in those areas that can sometimes be a little bit uncomfortable and you don’t know quite what to expect. But those are the moments you grow as a driver and open up your comfort zone just a little bit more. I just started to push my comfort zone a little bit more.”

In addition to intensifying her pre-race preparation, Patrick said she has benefitted from Andretti calling her race-day strategy.

“Mike is in my pit box and he’s always been one that’s been pushing for me to get on it on the out-laps and in-laps and things like that,” Patrick said. “You can really make up a lot of time in those spots and you don’t get a lot of practice and sometimes it takes a while. But I’ve watched some past races of Mike’s, and my goodness, he was always so good on those types of things and restarts. So it’s coming from the best there.

“And after the Milwaukee race (fifth-place finish), I said we’ve been having a lot of fun. I’ve just really enjoyed the group that I’m with. I think the pit crew has been fantastic from the get-go. It’s pretty much the same guys from last year, which I think is critical when it comes to team effort working together, synergy and just everybody respecting each other and moving forward. And I have a new engineer (Eddie Jones) for this year, so we just get along really well and have a good time.”

All that makes a switch to the fledgling United States Formula One organization less appealing.

“I’ve lived in England, I’ve been in Europe before and I have to say that I prefer being in the United States,” Patrick said. “I prefer being here, I prefer being around my friends and family and having those comforts. I think that it’s (F1) more competitive (this season)…what’s good is it’s not those normal teams up front that have been up there every single year. So, yeah, that’s interesting.

“But I have to say that if a good opportunity comes up here, that’s what I would prefer to do. I definitely enjoy living here. I enjoy this kind of racing and would be up for any challenge here.”

– John Sturbin can be reachedat jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 5 2009
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