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Tired of hearing about Danica Patrick? Then it will be a long season...

  Danica: somebody left the gate open? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   She may well be the sexiest racer in America, but will Danica Patrick find real success in NASCAR?
   After two years part-time in the Nationwide series, bluntly, is she really tough enough for the Cup tour?

   Heck, is she really braced for the full Nationwide series, all 33 events?
   The scorecard so far: She ran 13 Nationwide races in 2010, averaging a 28th-place finish, with a best of 19th at Homestead. She ran 12 Nationwide races in 2011, averaging a 17th-place finish, with a best of fourth at Las Vegas.
   Yes, Danica Patrick is one heck of a marketer. But what to expect out on the track?
   Patrick insists her main focus this season will be the Nationwide series (saying she's looking toward a top-five finish in the standings), more than the Sprint Cup series.
   However as high-profile as the 29-year-old racer is, her planned 10 Cup events will almost certainly overshadow, for better or worse, whatever she does on Saturdays.
   At the moment Patrick and new Cup crew chief Greg Zipadelli are focused on the Daytona 500. Her second Cup run isn't scheduled till May at Darlington. And she's got only 10 Cup events on her calendar: Charlotte's Coke 600, then a long Cup layoff till possibly a run in the July Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, followed by Bristol in August, Atlanta, Chicago and Dover in September, and Texas and Phoenix in November.
   An odd schedule perhaps, which could change naturally if more sponsorship comes available.
   And not everyone is enthusiastic about the behind-the-scenes dealings that have given Patrick an instant starting spot in the Daytona 500, without even having to qualify:  here's one view, from Canada's Dean McNulty:  http://bit.ly/xgmXJt


     Danica Patrick is about demographics and marketing as much as anything. And she is certainly popular (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Kevin Harvick and the rest of these guys are a lot tougher on Sundays than on Saturdays. Plus there will be a lot more of them for her to deal with, and in races that are twice as long.
   "And I'll learn that," she says.
   "I'll be learning what's acceptable on the track...and I can put my car into someone's rear bumper just as easily as they can put it into mine.
   "But I'll start from a respectful position, taking my time. I'm not going out there and get into everybody, or any of that. It's about learning what the limit is of what's acceptable.
   "And it's also about getting comfortable with the speed and driving aggressively. Everyone amps up their game for the big day."
   Cheap shots coming? A traditional rite of passage.
   "I'm ready," she insists. "If cheap shots are where it's at, I'll be dealing them too."
   Well, give her points for being game enough to make a run at this thing...though there is the nagging sense that she is still underestimating the demands of this career change.
   Does she really know what she doesn't know?
   She does have one of the best in the business in Tony Stewart as mentor.
   Clearly Patrick isn't lacking for confidence.
   "It's a story, it's entertainment, and everyone is trying to dig into it from different angles," she says. "It's all part of the game."

   So what can Danica Patrick do out on the track this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   To be honest, she's been playing in the glare of the spotlight for several years now. Since she became the first woman to win an Indy-car race, in the spring of 2008, at Motegi, Japan.
   Patrick has been easing into this branch of the sport for some two years now, albeit part-time, and with little great success.
   At first she'd expected to make the jump straight from Indy-car to Cup. But she heeded advice to run a couple of years in NASCAR's Triple-A series first.
   No Indy 500 this spring, she says. So maybe the Brickyard 400? "That might be a good place to add the 10th race," she says. "I love that track. I'll talk to them about that."
    That would certainly appear to put a ceremonial nail in her Indy-car career, though she insists she will probably some day return. (Charlotte's Bruton Smith says he has no promotional interest in her trying the Indy-Charlotte double.) Of course Tony Stewart, her new boss, was also once an Indy 500 star, the Indy-car tour's 1997 champion, but he hasn't run that 500 since 2001.

     And no more Indy-cars? For the time at least, she says (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Detractors abound.
   But she's cheeky about it all, and freely admits her technical prowess about these two-ton stockers still has a ways to go: "Bite? I ask Tony Eury Jr. 'Bite? What kind of dog?' I have a lot to learn," she says with a laugh.
   "I've been around for a long time," she says. "This is my 21st year of racing, and there will be people who think you can, and people who think you can't. It's important in sports to have people cheering for you and cheering against you.
   "People's negativity doesn't really factor in for me. Working real hard...breaking new ground and trying new things to make it happen...so I don't have an excuse as to why I didn't do it.
   "Finishing the races will be Job One. And through my career I've been consistent; I finish races...though I know it may be a little harder in NASCAR because you can get caught up in something not of your making, and you can get bumped around. But I'm not going to let that happen, at least the bumping part. They'll get it back."
   A lot of people in the sport certainly want her to succeed. This sport, remember, is a sports business centered on marketing, and Patrick -- cue up a couple of those racy commercials -- certainly creates buzz.
   But then the way Patrick has unabashedly exploited her sex appeal strikes some people as, well, unseemly perhaps if she really wants to be taken as a serious professional athlete.
   NASCAR marketers, on the other hand, are banking on Patrick's sex appeal to pump up the sport's in the 18-34 male demographic...and on Patrick's gender to pump up the sport's female base too. Danica Patrick In NASCAR isn't so much about adding something to the game for hardcore stock car fans as it is to attract new fans to the sport.
   "I think it's good to have people attracted to you," Patrick says, almost teasingly about the issue. "It's just a good thing."
   However Patrick says she's well aware of the criticism that she has been using her body: "It does not get to me. I do what feels comfortable to me.
   "I've been lucky enough in my life and my career to be able to be an honest person, authentic, whatever good or bad may come from that. We have a lot of fun in those commercials, and not just the Go-Daddy ones; I look pretty in different ads for other people too.
   "I'm a girl, and to say I can't use being a girl doesn't make any sense. In this world there is so much competition that you have to use everything you have to make sponsors happy and to attract them, to be unique.
   "Unique draws attention, and over my career I've been lucky in that, and I have fun with that. I don't want people not to think of me as a girl, because I am.
   "I am glad to be able to show different sides of my personality.
   "And as Lyn St. James says, the car doesn't know the difference."



Teammates: Danica Patrick and new boss Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   While Patrick might not appear to have great talents in a stock car, during her two years on the Nationwide circuit, well, remember how well -- not -- that Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart did during their 'warm-up' seasons in NASCAR's Triple-A series.
   But of course it takes more than talent at the wheel to make it in NASCAR. It takes a particular toughness, a talent at bouncing back from those inevitable bad days, and a good touch at keeping the team pumped up. And it takes a solid work ethic, which, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. is learning with crew chief Steve Letarte, can make a big difference.
   One thing Patrick won't lack is publicity. Everywhere she goes she's hot stuff.
   And one of the most remarkable things about Patrick is her ability to handle all the attention, to display amazing patience and an upbeat attitude, and still keep fairly well focused on learning this stock car thing
   But two things here:
   One, her 2012 schedule -- the full 33-race Nationwide tour, plus 10 or so Sprint Cup races -- may have some potholes, on the Cup side. She should be able to handle Daytona, but now Darlington in Cup, that should be a grand adventure, at those stunning speeds on that relatively small track. 
   Yes, her 34 weeks on the road will not be much more than the 30 weeks she was on the road last year, but being able to fly home Saturday night versus having to fly home Sunday night may be more strenuous than she anticipates. Throw in more Cup testing too. Plus the two cars are different, and jumping from one to the other and back again, on a weekend, may be more challenging than she expects. Plus, guys are just tougher on Sunday than Saturday, and there are a lot more of those tough guys on Sunday too.
   "Cup is going to be very important, but the best preparation for Cup will be running Nationwide all the time," she says.

   Two, she plans to keep home out in Phoenix, more than 1800 miles from Charlotte. "Planes will fly, and I will too," she says. Yes, Tony Stewart, her newest boss, lives up in Indiana; but he's been around NASCAR for years, and Patrick might be better off to spend more time in the shop, whenever possible. This sport is more than just showing up at the track helmet in hand.

   Patrick's Cup team will be headed by Zipadelli, who was Stewart's crew chief for 10 years and who has just joined Stewart's Cup operation as competition director. And her Saturday Nationwide team will continue to be owned by Earnhardt Jr.
   This will be Patrick's first year without Indy-car racing, apparently. "It's kind of a relief to be able to focus on just NASCAR," she says. "And with more racing, there will be more expectations to do well. And focus will help that.
   "I know what I need to work on -- my short-track racing, flatter tracks. And just getting more comfortable with the car when there is less grip. At high-banked tracks like Vegas and Texas have a lot of grip and I tend to fine. But when it comes to tracks like Loudon (NH), I need more work."
   Patrick concedes a major focus for her "is looking respectable out there, catching on, and understanding how to drive the car and get the most out of it.
  "I don't know what to be nervous about.
  "At this point, I'm open-minded, optimistic, and patient."
  Will NASCAR fans be likewise?
  Then again, does that really matter?



And when she gets mad, Danica Patrick says she won't pout, she'll get even (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



I guess if you guys keep

I guess if you guys keep telling us enough what a marketable item she is, she will be a marketable item. That's how it works in today's money grubbing society. The media keeps telling us how interested everyone is in DP. But I have over a hundred NASCAR friends and I know of only two that have any thoughts about her at all. So hats off to the new WWE NASCAR !!!!

Not a bad article but the

Not a bad article but the length of races is not a big deal. A street course is far more physically demanding than driving a cup car. Sam Hornish said as much in a racer article. 30+ races in Cup/NW is far less physically demanding than 16 races in Open Wheel.

Let the fawning begin! I can

Let the fawning begin! I can just hear Dale Jarrett now as he sees Danica spinning out by herself. "She did a good job."

I'm going to reserve comment

I'm going to reserve comment on what she will accomplish on the track. If she had no talent, she would not be here. How much talent remains to be seen. Many with far better credentials in the open wheel world did not fare well in NASCAR. I will be watching to see how many breaks NASCAR will cut for her to help her succeed because she will be the face of NASCAR in 2012 and they NEED for her to do well. My complaint about Danica Patrick is that she is, in my opinion, willing to do whatever her sponsor wants her to do. I feel the same about Junior but at least he has the decency to not act like that while the video tape is running.

I am still waiting for ESPN

I am still waiting for ESPN to start piling on Danica and repeatedly inform all of her supporters that she is not the slightest bit qualified to compete at the highest level of a sport. You know, like so many of them did with Tim Tebow. Certainly there's an equal or better case to be made for Danica's lack of qualification. At least Tebow's won something.

Same story different series.

Same story different series. Having followed both open wheel racing and stock cars, it's somewhat amusing to see that history repeats itself. In 2005 after similar hype the Indy 500 had a nice bump in ratings. In the proceeding year's as ABC and ESPN focused almost solely on Danica to promote the 500, thinking she would drive the ratings each year, the ratings slide to the lowest levels in history.
I think it is very smart for Danica to switch to NASCAR. She has worn out her welcome in IndyCars (she was booed at qualifying for the 500), and she will get the lion share of the press in NASCAR. Also, she was never going to win again in open wheel with the quality of competition improving each year. I think she would have struggled to beat Simona and Katherine as the best female in the series. To give you some context of Danica's influence, here are the ratings for the Indy 500.

1995-9.7 last 500 before the split.
2001-5.8 (rain delayed) nice bump because Penske fielded cars.
2005-5.9 First year of Danica mania. Nice bump due to novelty.
2008-4.4 First year for reunification with Champ car nice bump.
2010-3.6 Worst ratings ever.
2011-3.9 Slight bump as ABC talks noticeably less about Danica.

My point is that I have seen this story before. Danica will give Daytona a nice bump this year and then actually be a negative if the media continues to focus on her without any results to warrant.

You don't have to have a lot

You don't have to have a lot of talent behind the wheel so long as you have sponsor money. Danica's "talent" is not driving prowess, it's her centerfold looks and marketability. Why sponsors care more about that than having somebody who can be great if given a chance is beyond me. Now more than ever, deep pockets gets you farther in racing than talent does. So long as you can bring sponsors to the table, some owner is going to let you drive no matter how undeserving you are.

Wow...you went the whole

Wow...you went the whole story without saying Honey Badger. So I think Danica might bring new eyes to NASCAR more than fans giving it more attention. People who know I'm a NASCAR fan will ask me about Danica, the NASCAR fans i know couldn't care less about her.

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