Thursday April 23rd, 2009

Last week the New York Times devoted considerable space to speculation on Danica Patrick's future in the IRL. Her contract with Andretti Green is up after this season, and she seems to be seriously considering a switch to NASCAR. "One of the things I think of is the exposure level that you get in NASCAR with the ratings and viewership," she told the paper. "Their numbers are so much larger than ours, and with that comes a bigger following, comes more popularity, comes more demand for you to endorse other products. So I think it would be an exponential sort of growth."

As much as she is a talented racer, Patrick is also a shrewd businesswoman, which is why I see her moving to NASCAR sooner rather than later. Coming off her second straight appearance in the SI Swimsuit Issue, she seems eminently marketable to the sport's male-heavy audience. And we all know that a driver does not have to win very much (cough, cough) to be marketable to said audience. Don't just take my word for it. Listen to former Lowe's Motor Speedway chairman Humpy Wheeler, "She would be a ticket-selling machine, there's no doubt about that," he told the Times. "She would rock the turnstiles. As a woman and a cute girl, she would be a special kind of sensation."

Financially, anyway, jumping to NASCAR would seem to be the smart move for Patrick. But I'm fairly certain that if she joins NASCAR with only one career victory to her credit -- her IRL win at Motegi, Japan, last spring -- she will retire with one career victory to her credit.

Consider this: Patrick has now raced in IRL -- which is a less competitive series than Cup racing -- for a little over four years, and for the last two, she's been running for the top team on the circuit, Andretti Green. From a driving standpoint, her situation is ideal right now. And it's not too shabby when considered from a business standpoint, either. She made about $7 million last year, after all.

What would await her in NASCAR? A lot would depend on which team she signed with, of course, but even if she joined forces with an outfit as venerable as Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn't do much to mitigate the extremely steep learning curve that would be in store for her. A Cup car is far heavier and far tougher to handle than the open-wheeled IRL machines she's used to. No less a talent than Juan Pablo Montoya, with seven wins in six years on the Formula One circuit, has taken more than two years to develop into a Chase-competitive driver. And former IRL stud Sam Hornish Jr., who used to beat the pants off Patrick on a regular basis, just notched his first top-10 finish (at Phoenix last week) in 44 Cup starts.

I'm pretty sure Patrick knows all this. And while I don't doubt her commitment to winning races, I also don't doubt that she wouldn't be making the jump to NASCAR expecting instant success. At first, a move to Cup racing would be all about just one thing: hype. Those stunned by the mileage she has so far squeezed out of a four-year-old fourth-place finish in the Indy 500 haven't seen anything yet. The media frenzy around Patrick as a Cup rookie would be like nothing the sport has ever seen. It would be straining credulity to believe that, at the same time she's earning a mint of money from lucrative endorsement deals, she would be too broke up about finishing in the back of the pack 36 weeks out of the year as a rookie.

Athletes and beauty queens typically have short shelf-lives. Unlike most Americans, Patrick is a much more powerful earner in her 20s than she will be in her 40s and 50s. She has to strike while the iron is hot -- a fact of which I'm very sure she's quite aware. Nowhere will the iron be hotter for her next year than in NASCAR, even though attendance and television ratings are in a slump after years of unfettered growth. I don't have a crystal ball in which to gaze, just a gut instinct. And my instinct tells me: brace yourself. Here she comes.

6: Number of different winners after the first eight races of 2008

6: Number of different winners after the first eight races of 2009

9: Cup ranking of driver David Reutimann, who was 30th at this point last season

12: Career restrictor-plate victories for Jeff Gordon, more than any other driver in Cup history

Behold, another installment of the 'You're-messing-with-the-wrong-guy!' series. Last weekend at Phoenix, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears traded a little paint, for which NASCAR promptly placed them on probation. Let's watch.

Junior, I think, was clearly frustrated at losing position in a race he'd been leading just a few laps earlier. Nothing unusual about that -- for any driver. But Junior's frustration seems to be bubbling to the surface more and more these days.

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