Give Danica Chance to 'Rock the World'
Why shouldn't she?
That's the conclusion I've come to after months of ad nauseam speculation and story-chasing over the racing future of Danica Patrick.
Why not give stock cars a try? She's got the financial backing of a high-profile sponsor in GoDaddy.com and the race support of one of the top teams, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports and its umbrella Hendrick Motorports operation.
Patrick's Andretti Autosport Indycar team has given its blessing. Her new venture has piqued interest, earned top-of-the-fold headlines for months and will undoubtedly raise the profile of whatever ARCA Series or NASCAR event she suits up for.
You've got to go while the going's good. And any other driver served a similar situation would do it, too. The opinions just wouldn't be as harsh or plenty.
No doubt this will be the most difficult racing challenge the 27-year old Patrick has faced. But give her credit for having the, uh ... gumption to put herself out there.
The easier thing to do would have been simply to enjoy her ride as the face of the IZOD IndyCar Series driving for one of its top-tier teams in her legitimate quest to become the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 or win the season championship.
Her five seasons in major league open-wheel racing, which include a 2008 victory at Motegi, Japan, have landed her plenty of fame and glory and earned her a comfortable living.
Instead, Patrick is taking the tougher route.
She may not yet know the ins and outs of handling a stock car or running in the draft, but she does hold a trump card: she's used to overcoming obstacles and opinion in a way none of her competitors have ever had to.
Having said that, Patrick is hardly doing herself any favors with a limited schedule, negligible testing and big gaps between races. Seat time will be crucial in her getting a feel for the cars and she will have precious little of it.
Other open-wheelers who have made the switch to stock cars -- or tried to -- have cautioned against going about it on a part-time basis in addition to her full time IndyCar job.
Perhaps this will provide a more dramatic opportunity to again prove naysayers wrong. The commitment she shows will ultimately prove whether this is merely a paycheck-collecting venture or an honest effort to diversify and succeed.
The real question for Patrick isn't so much whether she should give stock cars a try, but how will she handle this new reality when it comes to competition, the press and her image.
Patrick has backed off comments she made in May before her "free agent" status began, when she said she'd prefer to bypass the developmental series and go straight to the big league Sprint Cup Series. She has visited NASCAR shops and solicited the advice of well-respected team owners and drivers. And, it appears, she has taken the advice to heart.
Far from debuting in the Cup Series, Patrick is set to run what's typically a free-for-all, the ARCA Series season-opener that kicks off Daytona Speedweeks on Feb. 7. It will be full sensory overload getting her first race laps on a superspeedway in a field largely consisting of other drivers-in-training.
The move to ARCA to then to her real gig in the Nationwide Series means a transition from 1,500-pound, sophisticated IndyCars to 3,000-pound lumbering stock cars for the 5-foot-3, 100-pound Patrick.
She seems a lot more realistic in her expectations this week than she did six months ago.
"I'm sure it's going to be a steep learning curve and what that slope looks like is yet to be determined,'' Patrick conceded. "It probably won't even get determined, maybe until the first six months.
"Hopefully it will be good from the git-go. I'm set up as well as I could be for success in that I have the right support and the right team. So we have the best chance.''
The one sure bet in this whole endeavor is that Patrick will be under unprecedented scrutiny.
For the most part, the NASCAR press corps doesn't quite know what to make of her. She's a hybrid -- a cross between Jeff Gordon's savvy and Tony Stewart's sass. These reporters won't be giving her the free pass she sometimes gets in the open-wheel world.
Her competitors won't, either. However, most NASCAR drivers have publicly welcomed her even if they warn of the uphill battle she faces. They seem to think adding Patrick to the mix will only increase the popularity of NASCAR.
At the least, it should help tracks sell tickets and add another compelling element to the television broadcasts.
Patrick does not lack personality. And just as any other passionate race car driver has had her share of confrontations with competitors -- Danica's have just generated more attention. When that came up this week, she held her ground.
"I'm going to start by giving them all respect,'' Patrick explained of her approach. "and if they don't play fair out there, we'll address it as needed.
"In IndyCar when I started, I started off by not really even talking to anyone because I was just quiet, and just observing. I have so much respect for all these drivers that I'm not going to come in and try and pretend I'm something that I haven't yet proven to be.
"So I'm going to play it cool, play fair and have fun.''
While part of Patrick's allure is her necessary toughness, her "brand" has also been built by capitalizing on her feminine side -- posing in swimsuits for Sports Illustrated and starring in edgy commercials for her sponsor GoDaddy.com.
Patrick is image-conscious, but so is NASCAR, and it will be interesting to see how her super-sexy commercials play in what is a more traditionally family-oriented genre. This is new ground for both entities. It didn't sound like there was any change in strategy on her behalf. GoDaddy.com Chairman Bob Parsons promised Tuesday, "you won't be disappointed" in teasing to Patrick's two new Super Bowl commercials that will air after her ARCA race debut.
The person that initially raised it was her new team owner, a former late model racer herself, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who promised that together they would "rock the world" and hopefully inspire other young women.
The other time was the last question during a 45-minute teleconference with the national media. It's a far cry from Patrick's IndyCar debut five years ago when gender was the dominant theme.
Whether Patrick wins a NASCAR race, it's clear she's already made a legitimate and important contribution to her sport and this alone is progress she can be proud of.