Bruce Martin
Monday April 27th, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- So, Danica Patrick thinks she can leave the IndyCar Series, switch to NASCAR and become an instant sensation, racking up millions in sponsorship and endorsement opportunities and race off into the sunset.

Perhaps if she talked to fellow IndyCar driver Sarah Fisher, Patrick would hear a sarcastic: "Good luck with that."

Fisher thought she was perfectly suited to make the switch to stock cars when she left IndyCar in 2004 to join Richard Childress Racing's development program. In many ways, Fisher was much better prepared to adapt to stock cars because she was successful at driving the front-engine midget and sprint cars in the United States Auto Club (USAC).

The only front-engine cars Patrick drives are the ones she drives around the streets of Scottsdale, Ariz., where she lives. Her professional racing career has been exclusively in rear-engine cars.

Fisher made her move to NASCAR at a time when the economy was flourishing and NASCAR teams could take an open-wheel driver to build a program around. But even with so much working in her favor, Fisher's NASCAR try was ill-fated and ill-timed. She languished in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series, and never got so much as a whiff of a Nationwide (then Busch) Series. She was out of racing by 2006.

And despite Patrick's personality, the same could happen to her because NASCAR is no longer the "Land of "Oz" to a race driver. That's especially true for someone like Patrick, who probably wouldn't want to spend time in ARCA, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series or Nationwide Series before moving up to Sprint Cup.

"To go and drive one of those cars, you can't just jump in the Cup world," Fisher said Sunday before starting her first IndyCar Series race of the season at Kansas Speedway. "It's a completely different technique of driving and is very similar to sprints and midgets. What I was doing by running the West Series into the Busch Series and then the Sprint Cup Series was the right track. It's unfortunate because the money is not there to grow someone and invest in a driver.

Fisher and Patrick have no relationship, whatsoever. In fact, Patrick tries to distance herself from the other two female drivers in IndyCar (Milka Duno being the third) because she approaches her sport as wanting to beat everyone, not just further the female cause in racing.

By making it appear she is open to NASCAR opportunities, Patrick may be using a shrewd negotiating tactic to improve her market value with current IndyCar Series team Andretti Green Racing. Of course, the dollar signs at NASCAR are still quite a draw.

That's where Fisher advises: Be careful what you wish for.

"It's a very tough world; it's a 'Good Old Boys' world, a 'Good Old Boys' network," Fisher said. "To be in that without any prior experience [in a car] will be extremely tough. Unless you are bringing in a pot load of money, I don't think they are going to [give you a deal] right away."

Some NASCAR teams may think Patrick can bring a sponsor to their team, which would be one reason why they might take a chance on a media sensation. One thing NASCAR lacks is a big-time female name, and Patrick would certainly fill that void. But if more talented drivers such as Dario Franchitti couldn't make it work in NASCAR, and three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish, Jr. continues to struggle in his second NASCAR season, Patrick's Sprint Cup outlook isn't great.

"I feel bad for that guy [Hornish]," Fisher said. "I know how Sam can drive. He is one hell of a driver and I respect him greatly. That is a classic example of how you can't just jump in one of those cars and expect to run up front. It's a completely different style of driving. And if you didn't grow up driving something similar to that, then you are really behind the eight-ball."

Fisher's problem was the sponsorship money would only fund a ride once she got to the top tiers of NASCAR. She foundered financially at the grass-roots level of stock car racing and lived with her then-boyfriend in an RV in a California parking lot.

"We were living in a bus," she said. "But we had to try. That was something we thought we would be successful with and [we weren't]. At the heart of RCR, every part of that program was meant to be better than it was. I know that part of it is checked off. Would I revisit it? Probably not."

Stanton Barrett knows how tough it is in NASCAR because he's been competing in various stock car divisions since the mid-1990s. Barrett is unique because he actually jumped from NASCAR to IndyCar and has so far been decent on the race track. He finished 17th out of 22 cars in Sunday's Road Runner Turbo Indy 300.

Barrett, a Hollywood stuntman by trade, cautions Patrick to make sure a jump to NASCAR doesn't turn out to be a real stunt.

"It's more of what you do risk if it doesn't work out," Barrett said. "It depends on what team you deal with. It's always wise to run some just to get the experience in those cars. Nobody has made a real easy transition over there. Tony Stewart was able to do it in the late 1990s, but he ran Nationwide for a whole year-and-a-half before moving up to Cup. It's a big playing field over there, but with the economy being so tough, if you are having a lot of success here and you are a big-time driver, I'd stay put."

For now, Patrick is exploring the possibilities, but she may be better off being the proverbial big fish in a small pond than getting devoured by the sharks in NASCAR.

Watching the last lap of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega brought back frightening memories of a similar incident that changed the sport forever -- or, has it really changed?

It was 1987 and I was a much younger (and lighter) reporter. I remember seeing Bobby Allison's car go airborne into the fence -- ripping away the metal -- and seeing the metal posts explode like M-80s on July 4, sending debris showering into the packed grandstands that day.

Allison's car nearly cleared the very top cable, and if the car had made it into the crowd, spectators could have been killed. My sprint to the scene of the crash was followed by a gory reminder of the dangers of sitting so close to the track at Talladega. Blood stained the seats and one unfortunate race fan lost an eye.

Rightfully, that was the last race that NASCAR Cup cars competed in without a device to slow the speeds. First it was a smaller carburetor, but later it was restrictor plates that reduced the amount of air into the carburetor and, in turn, reduced horsepower.

Those adjustments succeeded in dropping the speeds well below 200 mph. In fact, in that 1987 race Bill Elliott won the pole at over 212-mph. But the adjustments also created a brand of racing that may be even more dangerous.

So when Brad Keselowski's nudge launched Carl Edwards' car into the air, history repeated itself with a massive crash into the fence, busting huge, thick posts in half and sending debris into the crowd.

Again, there were spectator injuries; two fans were airlifted to local hospitals. Thankfully, none of those injuries was serious.

All forms of auto racing are inherently dangerous; the competitors accept the risk when they sign up to become race drivers. The fans, however, certainly don't expect to die when they go to a race.

And the risk certainly isn't unique to NASCAR. The same thing could easily happen in IndyCar and Formula One. In fact, the IndyCar Series has moved toward adding more street and road course races to the schedule because high-speed racing on ovals is fraught with danger.

But even by seeing fellow fans injured on Sunday, those in the crowd at Talladega left thinking they had seen the greatest race of the year. It's a blood-thirsty crowd that comes to Talladega twice a year -- the same type of crowd that paid to watch the Christians get tossed to the lions back in the days of the Roman Coliseum (I hear the No. 88 Lion was the crowd favorite).

And while NASCAR's new car gets blasted because it doesn't produce side-by-side racing at many tracks, it's hypocritical to place the blame on the car after Sunday's near disaster.

Fans and media aren't happy with single-file racing, but does the sport need the kind of excitement that came on the final lap at Talladega? Remember, it's only fun until someone gets hurt.

Those are the types of thrills we can all do without.

When a car finally does sail over the top cable and into the grandstands, it will be the end of auto racing because if the federal government doesn't shut it down, the insurance companies would. That is a risk that NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and other forms of racing simply cannot take.

But Edwards doesn't expect anything to change.

"NASCAR just puts us in this box," Edwards said. "They put us in this box and we'll race like this until we kill somebody and then they'll change it, but I'm just glad nobody got hurt today. I'm glad the car didn't go up in the grandstands and hurt somebody. I don't know if I could live with myself if I ended up in the grandstands."

If it takes bringing in someone from NASA to make sure it doesn't happen again, then that is what NASCAR needs to do.

There is certainly too much at risk by simply ignoring the problem.

After two disappointing finishes to open the season, Scott Dixon returned to form by winning Sunday's Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway. The Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver scored the 17th victory of his career, leaving him just two short of Sam Hornish Jr.'s career record for IndyCar Series wins.

But more importantly for Dixon, the victory comes at a crucial time as the series heads to its biggest race of the year: the 93rd Indianapolis 500.

"Having the terrible start that we had was something that we weren't used to and something that we had to shake quickly," he admitted afterwards. "Coming into Kansas, a lot of people have been telling me this place kind of owes me one. We've had successful cars here, and last year I think we led just about every lap until the last pit stop and got caught out on a yellow, cycled all the way back to 15th and got back up to third.

Dixon began the season with a 16th-place finish in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and a 15th-place finish at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. That left him deep in the IndyCar points, but the defending series champion has fought his way back to fourth place with his victory.

"To have pretty much two DNFs (did not finish) at the first two races has been very frustrating," Dixon said. "It's been fantastic for the team and definitely Dario getting the win at Long Beach, but on our side it's been very frustrating. It's still very tight and we're still within a shot to win this championship. We're definitely looking strong going into Indy."

When it comes to the IndyCar Series, Dixon is the total package, even if he slipped up in the first two street races. Expect him to set the pace for most of the month of May at Indy.

Tony Kanaan doesn't do things quietly. Still, some people might be surprised that he's perched atop the IndyCar Series standings after a third-place finish on Sunday. Consider that since the start of the season, much of the focus in this series was on Helio Castroneves' trial and acquittal on tax evasion charges, Scott Dixon's slow start, Dario Franchitti's return to IndyCar and Danica Patrick for just about anything she says, and it's easy to understand why Kanaan's efforts have been overlooked.

But he leads the standings by one point over Ryan Briscoe as the series heads to Indianapolis.

"It's just great to get going again on a superspeedway," Kanaan said. "This track has nothing similar to Indy. It's just really good to get out of here with a good result and get ready for the month of May.

"Obviously having an oval before Indy, its great; otherwise we have to go straight there. I think it was going to be tough the first couple days. You know, in my opinion, it's great to be back here and it's great to just come back to the ovals."

Kanaan has the title of "best driver in the IndyCar Series who has yet to win the Indianapolis 500." That's a title he wants to get rid of on May 24.

"A rumor is a rumor. I don't want to get in the middle of that. I've got a job to do and I do it. You shouldn't listen to rumors." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on rumors that persist involving the status of Tony Eury, Jr. as his crew chief (and other Earnhardt-related topics).

"Vegas was more willing to cooperate and work with us to make it a better experience and to bring in the fan element as well. So I am open to trying it; it's worth trying it for a year. It's tough for me to leave New York because I have a fond spot in my heart for New York, and I think that New York is a great place for us to crown our champion. If Vegas doesn't work out, I guess we can always go back. Girls are always an option. The men will enjoy that." -- Three-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on NASCAR's announcement that the Sprint Cup Banquet is being moved from New York to Las Vegas.

"Wow, pinch me. I don't know, am I awake?" -- Brad Keselowski after winning at Talladega.

"Talladega is short for, `We're going to crash, we just don't know when.'" -- Ryan Newman after finishing third at Talladega.

"It's tough to race here. It's just disappointing how many hours go into these cars and then we come out here and tear them up like we do. We were smart all day long, and I think the field in general did a pretty good job of using their heads, and then there at the end some guys were beat and were trying to cram their way back in the line and not lose the draft. In the closing laps it just caused a wreck. It's too bad that it happened. Man, it sucks racing here." -- Jimmie Johnson after he was involved in a major crash late in Sunday's race at Talladega.

It's time to load up the Explorer and head to Indianapolis to set up camp for the 93rd Indianapolis 500. While an assignment that lasts for nearly a month may seem like a real drag, the Indianapolis 500 remains the biggest race of the year. The fact that this is the Centennial of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway makes this year's 500 a little more special. And to this native Hoosier, the month of May at the Speedway is an annual rite of Spring.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.