Tim Tuttle
Friday December 11th, 2009

When deciding how to enter NASCAR next season, Danica Patrick was very diligent, thanks to the advice of Tony Stewart, who traveled the same path in the late 1990s.

Patrick visited the Stewart-Haas Racing shop several times over the summer, sparking rumors that she might drive for it in 2010. The rumors were far off the mark; Stewart-Haas doesn't have a Nationwide Series team and has no plans to start one soon. Stewart, however, knew that Danica needed to begin driving stock cars in the Nationwide Series. He also knew that she should only accept a deal with a top team -- she shouldn't make a deal just to get in the series. It appears Patrick listened to Stewart; Patrick's Nationwide schedule hasn't been determined, but she'll be doing it with JR Motorsports, the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Rick Hendrick collaboration that finished third in last year's championship with Brad Keselowski.

This is what Stewart had to say about Patrick in September: "She wants to do it the right way, she has every intention of doing everything right and she's kind of come to us to see in our opinion how she should go about it."

Danica is right to follow Stewart's advice; he has been the most successful of the IndyCar drivers who have made the switch to Sprint Cup, where he has won two championships.

Stewart's switch began in 1995, when, at the age of 24, he became the first driver in United States Auto Club history to win all three national series -- Midget, Sprint Cars and Silver Crown -- in the same season. After seeing former USAC Midget and Silver Crown champion Jeff Gordon win the Sprint Cup championship in 1995, veteran car owner Harry Rainer signed Stewart to a Nationwide deal, where Gordon also had his NASCAR start.

Stewart also competed in the Indy Racing League's inaugural season, in 1996, as there was nothing in his contract with Rainer to prevent Stewart from also racing in it. Initially, A.J. Foyt offered Stewart a contract for what is known now as the IndyCar Series, but he insisted that Stewart not drive in Nationwide. Stewart refused and, with representative Cary Agajanian's help, hooked on with Menard Racing.

Stewart drove in nine races for Rainer in Nationwide and five in IndyCar in 1996. At the end of the year, Stewart was spotted by Joe Gibbs, who wanted to build up a second Sprint Cup team. Stewart drove in five races with Gibbs in Nationwide in 1997 and in the entire 10-race IndyCar season, winning the championship.

Stewart also drove full time in IndyCar in 1998, but in the spring he signed a long-term deal with Gibbs to move to Sprint Cup. Stewart drove in 22 Nationwide races that season, bringing his career total to 36, and became a Cup sensation in 1999, winning four races and finishing fourth in the championship.

Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier, who made the switch almost directly from IndyCar to Cup, have not enjoyed Stewart's success. A.J. Allmendinger, a star in Champ Car, went straight to Cup in 2007 and has done just enough to hang onto a full-time job in Cup with Richard Petty Motorsports. Even Juan Pablo Montoya, one of the world's 10-best drivers, has taken three years to transition from Formula One, and he had a CART Champ Car background before that.

With her commitment for the full IndyCar schedule with Andretti Autosport for the next two years, Patrick will run a limited schedule in Nationwide, which should be enough for her and her team to make a realistic evaluation of the next step: more Nationwide or Cup. Or, maybe to decide the experiment has failed and go back to entirely concentrating on IndyCar.

As the co-owner at Stewart-Haas, Stewart will be watching Patrick's progress carefully. It has been widely speculated that, when GoDaddy.com sponsored Mark Martin retires in 2011, Patrick will be his replacement. It's logical and it's possible. But Patrick could also end up at Stewart-Haas, which has a technical partnership with Hendrick. Stewart hopes to have a third car in 2011 and a fourth after that.

"It [(2011] is on the radar for sure," Stewart said last week at the International Motorsports Industry Show, which he co-founded, in Indianapolis. "If we can find the right opportunity that makes sense, we'd love to do that. The goal from day one when we had our talks with Haas was to make it a four-car team.

"We're not planning on going from two to four cars. We wanted to make sure two went well before we added the third and make sure three go well before we added the fourth. I think this was a good enough year for us (with Stewart and Ryan Newman both making the Chase) that it's reasonable for us to start looking towards a third team."

The third car in 2011 could be for either Kevin Harvick or Kasey Kahne. That leaves a slot open for Patrick and GoDaddy.com in 2012, or maybe 2013.

Would Patrick be open to Stewart's offer? Undoubtedly. Why wouldn't she want to work directly under the driver who mastered the switch from IndyCar to Cup?

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