Danica Patrick's history-making fourth-place finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas this past weekend has fans of IndyCar wondering what the future holds for the Andretti Autosport driver.
Will she continue to dabble in stock car racing - Saturday's race was the third of 13 NASCAR events she's slated for this season - while running a full IndyCar schedule? Or will she leave open-wheel racing completely in 2012, as at least one IndyCar journalist has declared?
I believe Patrick will leave IndyCar for the green (Ed: as in the color of money?) pastures of NASCAR. I want to believe she will do so for the right reasons.
A sometimes frustrating groundbreaker
Somewhat like Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver and owner of the Nationwide Series team Patrick drives for, folks seem to either be solidly behind her or deeply critical. Variously, she's:
- A bikini model with modest racing talent leveraging her looks to get opportunities while other, more deserving drivers go without; or
- A talented racer and smart businesswoman overseeing the development and marketing of her brand; or
- The most popular driver in IndyCar and vital to the successful turn-around of the series;
- A driver who hasn't reached her full potential due to inferior equipment and the demands created by her own popularity.
- A history-maker with NASCAR's top finish by a female, the only woman to win a major-series race - the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 - and the highest qualifying (fourth, 2005) and finishing (third, 2009) female in the Indianapolis 500.
The folks who follow me on Twitter (Ed: What, the 12 real people or the 200 spammers and bots?) know I've been on both sides of the fence when it comes to Patrick.
As the father of two daughters and grandfather to three granddaughters, I'm very much in favor of breaking down gender barriers wherever they appear, including big-time racing.
But I also have been frustrated with Patrick's tendency to always blame others - a case in point was last year's interview at Indianapolis where fans booed her after Patrick implied her crew gave her an unsafe car - and the impression, perhaps mine alone, that she doesn't work as hard preparing to race as she does polishing her off-track image.
A Danica divided against herself ...
Her perceived lack of preparation for the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series opener at Daytona this past February irked me, as Patrick had top-rate equipment and experience at the track from both NASCAR and ARCA starts. Yet she seemed unable or unprepared to take part in the "two-car tango" drafting that predominated Daytona after its recent repaving job.
The following week she finished laps down at Phoenix -- to be fair, in a race totally dominated by Kyle Busch -- and professed to have no knowledge that her "home track" was going to be re-configured and repaved after NASCAR's weekend there.
However, Patrick's solid run at Las Vegas, a driver's track where she finished 36th last year, showed what she is capable of in stock cars. Yes, she benefitted from other driver's stumbles, but that's part of racing at every level and shouldn't detract from her accomplishment. Patrick has shown progress in learning the ins and outs of racing cars with fenders this season, but she's not ready to take on NASCAR's top-tier Cup Series - yet.
Her next test is Bristol, a tough short track. A return to earth is likely - a top-15 would be a success - but even worse is that after Bristol Patrick will turn her full attention to IndyCar and won't return to NASCAR until the summer months.
Splitting her attention between tin tops and open-wheel may mean she's less successful in both. The days of an A.J Foyt, Bobby Unser or Mario Andretti going back and forth between stock cars and open-wheel without missing a beat in either type are long gone; the racing and cars are too different, too specialized, these days.
Paging Gordon Gecko ...
On the SPEED program Wind Tunnel on Feb. 28, SPEED.com motorsports writer Robin Miller told host Dave Despain he believed Patrick would be racing in NASCAR full-time in 2012, because that's what sponsor GoDaddy.com and her management company wanted (Ed: read cha-ching!).
I agree for 2012 she likely will pick one series to race in, but I'd like to believe money wouldn't be the deciding factor. Instead, I'd hope Patrick would base her decision on the type of racing she enjoyed the most or that challenges her the most.
We'd all like athletes to make their decisions that way, right? One of my favorite lines in the movie For Love Of The Game is when Kevin Costner's character says to a friend leaving the Tigers for a huge free-agent contract with the Yankees: "How much money do we have to make, anyway?"
But that isn't how it works, is it? Everyone wants to get paid what they feel is their worth, and despite IndyCar's recent positive moves, the money is greater in NASCAR.
She'll be working to earn that money, though: the season is longer, the circuits are varied, the fields are larger, the competition to beat runs from very good to not so much, and the fish bowl is enormous.
I'd like to believe those challenges, more so than the money, are too much for Patrick - or any top-tier athlete - to ignore. Kind of like being the best hitter or pitcher in an independent baseball league wanting to know how they would do against the Yankees or Phillies. Sure, the money is better, but the stage is also larger, the lights brighter. (Ed: Please remember, IndyCar fans, he's not saying NASCAR is better, just bigger ... for now.)
Some say should she stay in IndyCar until she becomes a "proven" winner, capable of getting to Victory Lane anytime she straps in. If that's the criteria, she can strive for that status in NASCAR just as well - and at the same time put an end to the start-and-stop development cycle she's in now.
Don't cry for me, Argentina ...
IndyCar will survive without her. I'm sure CEO Randy Bernard will make a case to Patrick for staying - hopefully not as desperate sounding as his interview with her at Motegi last season - but he's also smart enough to realize there's no need to mortgage the farm just to keep her in the series.
There are a lot of talented young drivers - some Americans, some not - on the cusp of making it into IndyCar, as well as a solid core of veterans. Title sponsor IZOD has done great things promoting the series and its drivers, and there is a lot of interest in the new car coming in 2012.
IndyCar's future is bright, with or without Patrick. Conversely, Patrick's future is bright, with or without IndyCar. That should be enough for fans of both.