Danica Patrick gears up for IndyCar, N'wide balancing act
Starting with Sunday's IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway, Patrick will bounce between open wheel and stock cars for three consecutive weekends, ultimately driving 10 races in each series before season's end. That's something only two other drivers in recent history have done --
In 1998, Stewart competed in all 11 races on the Indy Racing League schedule, driving to victory twice. He also drove in 22 of the 31 NASCAR Busch Series events, garnering five top-5 finishes. Stewart moved up to Cup the following year and had one of the finest rookie seasons of all-time with a then-record three wins en route to winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award.
Hornish ran the full 17-race IndyCar Series schedule in 2007 and nine of the 35 Nationwide races. He had one win, eight top-5s and 12 top-10s in IndyCar and a best finish of 15th in NASCAR. He also attempted to compete in eight Cup races that season, but only made the field for two, coming home 30th at Phoenix and 37th at Homestead.
Will Danica ever compete in Cup? That's the enticing possibility as she dabbles in NASCAR this season -- over a year before her IndyCar contract expires at the end of the 2011 season. And one thing driving her in this grand experiment is that she doesn't like to be told she "can't" do something.
"I think to be good in any one of these series any more, you have to be in it 24-7," says her IndyCar boss and car owner,
Patrick has been more like Hornish than Stewart in her NASCAR races thus far. She was 35th at Daytona, 31st at Fontana and 36th at Las Vegas before taking a break from Nationwide to focus on the IndyCar series. Will she make substantial progress in the upcoming 20-day stretch that will see her driving open wheel at Iowa (June 20), stock car at New Hampshire (June 26), open wheel at Watkins Glen (July 4), stock car at Chicago (July 9)? Odds are she won't be able to make serious gains at stock car racing until the IndyCar season concludes on Oct. 2, enabling her to focus fulltime on the six consecutive Nationwide races that wrap up her year.
One advantage she has upon her return to the Nationwide Series is that JR Motorsports has run the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet in every race this year with a variety of drivers, so even if Patrick struggles in qualifying, she will be assured a starting position based on team owner points. And I do expect her to struggle on New Hampshire's flat, one-mile, paper-clip-shaped oval because it's challenging even for seasoned stock car veterans. She goes from there to America's most classic road course, Watkins Glen, where she finished 14th last year in IndyCar, then gets to make all left turns in a stock car the following Friday night at Chicagoland Speedway. She's likely to do much better at that Nationwide race because the 1.5-mile oval is is one on which she has raced many times in an IndyCar.
Of the four Nationwide races she'll miss between July 16 and Aug. 7, each because of a conflicting IndyCar race on the same weekend, the one I wish she were competing in is Watkins Glen because, as noted earlier, it too is an IndyCar venue and familiarity sometimes breeds success.
Patrick's toughest turnaround is likely to be in mid-September after the IndyCar Series makes its annual trek to Japan. Following that Sept. 19 race, she will fly to the U.S. the next day, get readjusted to the time difference and compete in a Nationwide race at Dover, Del., on Sept. 25. That may be one she looks back at later and wonders if she was being too aggressive with her scheduling.
"Like I've said before, we just want to be smart and calculative about this process," Patrick said. "The tracks we've selected not only complement the IndyCar schedule, but will give me quality seat time at a variety of facilities. As far as the schedule goes, I have a lot of predictability through the summer, which is nice. I think in years past, it's been fly here, do this appearance, do this photo shoot, then things come up last second. But when the race season is going, people know that I need that time and I need the time during the week to recover and get to the next one. So I'm looking forward to it."
Even if Patrick makes substantial progress in Nationwide, she warns that doesn't mean she is ready to make a career change.
"I do see progress," she said, grading her performance in those earlier Nationwide races. "I think slowly but surely people are being more familiar with us, but we do have a long way to go. I was having dinner at Long Beach and somebody sent me a rose with a message that said, 'Thanks for coming to NASCAR.' We still have a long way to go, but we are all going in the right direction. But I don't know which direction I'm going in at the end of two years, either."
That's what makes this experiment so interesting.