Friday July 24th, 2009

What will she do?

This is the BIG question in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend. Though Danica Patrick is currently racing in another country -- the IndyCar event in Edmonton, Canada -- she is very much on the minds of everyone in NASCAR.

The Brickyard, after all, is where Patrick has enjoyed some of her finest moments in motorsports. She finished fourth in the 2004 Indy 500, a performance that landed her on the cover of SI, and largely introduced her to sports fans around the globe, and just six weeks ago she came in third in the 500. Indy has been Patrick's proving ground, the place where she's established her racing bona fides.

And now that the Cup series has rolled into Indy for its annual stop at the 2.5-mile oval, the garage is abuzz over the possibility of Patrick, who's in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing, moving to NASCAR next season.

What will she do?

This much is certain: NASCAR needs a shot of adrenaline right now, and Patrick would provide just that. TV ratings are down. Attendance is down. And there's been a dearth of compelling, front-page storylines this season -- though Jeremy Mayfield is doing his damndest to remedy that.

Patrick, with the stroke of a pen on a contract with Roush Fenway Racing or Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart Haas Racing (more on this in a moment), would bring instant juice to the sport, enticing even non-racing fans to check out NASCAR. There would be so many questions: Could she be competitive in the country's premiere racing series? Could she win? Would she be able to handle the bumping and grinding and banging that is stock car racing? Would she go ballistic that first time she got slammed into the wall at 180 mph? Would the good ol' boys like Richard Petty embrace her? Would she be the best thing to happen to NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt Jr. came along? Would ...

I've spent a lot of time with Patrick over the past few years, going to dinner with her and her husband, Paul, hanging out in her mansion of a motor coach, spinning donuts in the Indy infield in her golf cart, which she proudly proclaims is the fastest of all the Indy drivers, and spending time with her and her parents. This much I know about Danica: She's a risk taker. She's not conventional. She's a free thinker. And she's very, very cognizant of the Danica Patrick "brand," as she often calls it.

Well, The Brand, if she desires, could make a mint in NASCAR. While sponsors have been pulling out of the sport because of the recession -- just this week, DeWalt, which has been backing Matt Kenseth for a decade, pulled the plug on its support of Kenseth -- Patrick would have zero problems finding sponsorship. She is, after all, a 5'1'', 110-pound bundle of marketing gold. (Question: What's the surest way to get the most page hits on a SI.com motorsports story? Answer: Write about Patrick.)

Patrick has already said that she only will consider joining the elite teams in NASCAR, which means the list is four: Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway and Stewart Haas. But go ahead and cross JGR off the list; Patrick's sex symbol image wouldn't fly with owner Joe Gibbs, a devout Christian. He wouldn't want to be associated with pictures like this.

So this leaves us with three possible teams. Jack Roush aggressively wooed Patrick three years ago, but he already has five cars in his stable and he needs to reduce to four next season (say goodbye, Jamie McMurray). Hendrick has four drivers under contract for 2009, which means something extraordinary would have to happen for Patrick to land there. (One juicy rumor: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start his own Cup team next year, which would be backed by Hendrick, to open up a spot for Patrick. But I don't see this happening, not with Little E's struggles this season.)

The logical place for Patrick to land is with Stewart Haas Racing. Currently a two-car team, Stewart has the room and desire to add a third car in 2010. Stewart and Patrick have much in common: They're both from the Midwest, they both grew up racing go-karts, and they both have open-wheel backgrounds. What a pair they would make -- Stewart, the man's man, the racer who's as fit as Fred Flintstone, the guy who always looks like he just rolled out of the sack; and Patrick, the girl next door who's as comfortable in a cocktail dress as in a racing suit, the woman who has a booming career as a swimsuit model. Now THIS would be a hell of a story.

What will she do?

If I were a betting man, I'd say she goes.

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