Does IndyCar need Danica Patrick anymore?

LOUDON, NH - JUNE 26: A Danica Patrick fan poses at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 26, 2010 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Preface: this is not something I wanted to write. But I feel like I have to write it.

I'm not writing it because the IZOD IndyCar Series is racing at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, the site of Danica Patrick's first - and, to date, only - career victory. That's just good timing.

I'm writing it because there are several big crossroads coming up for the IndyCar series, and the question of whether IndyCar should make a push to keep The Divine DP in the fold in the face of her increasingly obvious desire to make a career in NASCAR is one of the more critical ones.

I don't think they should, because Danica has become less an asset to IndyCar and more an overwhelming distraction.

I could go on a long and extensive trip through Danica's career path to IndyCar, but in the interests of brevity, this is what you need to know: Rahal, her ass-crack in FHM, more Rahal, 4th at Indy, Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, win at Motegi, more Sports Illustrated, 3rd at Indy.

In between there's been drama, teammate disagreements, stomping down the Indy pit lane to try and beat up Ryan Briscoe, yelling at Milka Duno, innumerable instances of the phrase "y'know" and frustrated hand gestures from the cockpit, and a whole lot of pop culture interest... in Danica, not in IndyCar racing.

Now, the very few times I have interacted with Ms. Patrick personally, I have found her either polite and even charming or eye-narrowingly, scowlingly chilly. Still, I have no personal bias against her. I don't go around calling her "Princess Sparkle Pony" or denigrating her racing skills or whatnot.

My only beef with Danica has been the hype machine that she has carefully cultivated over time and the vast, vast chasm that separates that hype from her reality.

At one point (pre-2005), I was actually extremely enthusiastic about Danica moving up the ranks. Like Robin Miller, I recognized that Danica actually has some legitimate skill behind the wheel of a racecar. But as time went on and she went from a girl going places to a GoDaddy Girl, I've seen how very little her actual skills have come to matter to those caught within the pop culture bubble that surrounds her lately.

For half a decade, the IndyCar series latched onto her ascending star, hoping to make a bigger impression on the world at large by their association with her. But the realization that many have gradually awakened to is that Danica's achievements - whether it is a strong run at an oval or a glamorous walk up a red carpet - are separate from any context that includes or benefits those with whom she associates.

Still, as long as Danica had her mind fully focused on her IndyCar career, there was the hope that she could do some good for the series. That hope was crushed at the beginning of this year when she ran her first NASCAR race. Now, even though she pays lip service to IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, it's difficult to believe she has her eye on anything other than the huge paydays and brighter spotlight of stock car racing. And even if she protests to the contrary, nobody seems to believe her - she is already being called "NASCAR's own" and an "elite NASCAR driver" by the media outside of the racing fraternity.

But that's just fine, if you ask me. In fact, I hope Danica does go to NASCAR and take her traveling circus with her. NASCAR is already a carnival atmosphere and she and her publicity fit in perfectly with their "Boogity Boogity Boogity!" sense of fun and entertainment.

The thing is, it's not 2005 anymore. Now we have IndyCar drivers like Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz, or Pippa Mann and Shannon McIntosh in the ladder system. While they are all bright, personable and attractive, the main thing is that they are skilled. They are all deadly serious about being racers and not glamour girls at Hollywood premieres. That's not to say that none of them will eventually sample such pleasures, but for now they are focused and determined on one goal. And that goal is IndyCar racing.

Danica Patrick lacks that single-minded focus and determination right now. She's trying to have the best of three worlds - IndyCar, NASCAR and pop culture. By dividing her attention between three goals, her efforts are diluted until she becomes mediocre at all three.

IndyCar is best served in the long run by letting her go to NASCAR if she wants. Randy Bernard said it best when he left International Speedway Corporation's racetracks off of the 2011 calendar - IndyCar needs relationships with those who are invested in promoting the product and being enthusiastic partners. A half-hearted, distracted effort will not be good enough, and if that is what someone is offering IndyCar - whether that someone is a track owner, a race promoter, or a driver - then IndyCar needs to have the balls to say "sayonara" to them... perhaps at a cost for the present, but with an eye fixed on the future.

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