Before this season, Danica Patrick had to decide if she wanted to again run the ARCA race at Daytona in February as a way to gain more experience in a stock car.
She had driven in that race in 2010, overcoming a spin to finish sixth, a result that left her smiling after exiting the car. But that day was one reason why Patrick chose not to run in the ARCA race this season.
"To be honest, if I go back for a second time, this is maybe my own fear, but you all expect me to do better,'' Patrick told reporters in February. "There's that added pressure of like it's not just to go out there and drive around for the day. Like, 'OK I did it last year, now I need to do better this year.' That's an added pressure. Public perception was one [of the reasons].''
The expectations will only intensify for Patrick.
She announced Thursday that she'll move to NASCAR full time next year, running the Nationwide season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team and eight to 10 Sprint Cup races with Tony Stewart's team, Stewart-Haas Racing. No decision has been made on what Cup races she'll drive next year, although the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and races in Phoenix, Chicago, Texas and Las Vegas seem likely for various reasons. She also wouldn't rule out a chance to run next year's Indianapolis 500. She's expected to move to Cup full time in 2013.
Her announcement was followed by a 94-word statement from NASCAR chairman Brian France saying how the sport was "pleased'' she would move to that series full time, and an 85-word statement from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernhard, who noted that his series "should give her a great farewell the rest of this season,'' noting how she has "touched millions of fans and many that were new to motor sports.''
Such attention is rare. If Patrick felt like she was in a fishbowl in IndyCar, wait until all of NASCAR nation begins to judge her. It started on Twitter from fans. Brad Keselowski (Twitter handle @keselowski) also offered a detailed explanation on how he feels about Patrick's entrance, noting that some of the best racers he competed against in quarter midgets were girls but how many didn't make it up higher levels for various reasons.
Then he wrote on Twitter: "All that said, her assent up the ladder of the sport thru various branding 'techniques' (swimsuit ads etc) only serves to undermine the ... future credibility of female races who wish to make it based on skill, mental toughness and a never give up attitude. That to me is wrong. Essentially, she has opened a pandoras (sic) box for all female racers. If she doesn't succeed, no female will get the chance for years to come.''
Keselowski brings up a key issue related to Patrick's announcement and how she could impact future races. But it's only one facet of the fallout from Danica's announcement Thursday.
Danica Patrick -- Let us count the ways, starting with dollar signs. She goes from a series barely viewed on a national level outside the month of May to a series viewed by millions of fans. That means more T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia to sell. She'll get more exposure on ESPN. All of this will enhance the Danica brand at the beginning. In the end, results will determine if she'll be viewed based on her racing accomplishments or her commercials. Another benefit from the move is she gets to race more often on ovals. Not known for her road racing abilities, Patrick only will have to run three or so road races a year instead of the 10 this year in the IndyCar Series. Plus, working with two-time champion Tony Stewart in Cup isn't a bad way to break into that series.
JR Motorsports -- Keeps Danica in its car and helps bring in sponsorship to a team that has struggled to fully fund its cars this season. With purse money cut, sponsorship money has become more critical for teams and GoDaddy.com's money helps keep this organization competing at a high level.
Stewart-Haas Racing -- Tony Stewart has wanted to expand beyond two cars since becoming part owner of the team in 2009. Patrick running select races in his cars helps him reach that goal. Stewart's team has trie d to build depth among its pit crew by renting out a crew to a low-budget Cup team, but now they'll be able to work on Stewart Haas cars when Patrick competes in select Cup races. Plus, by partnering with the Patrick brand, it can lead to additional sponsors joining the team, which helps make that third full-time team a reality. Should Patrick succeed, it could help the team launch a fourth car.
ESPN -- Its networks broadcast the Nationwide Series and now it will have the chance to showcase Patrick more often than before since it had her only in a handful of Nationwide races and doesn't broadcast the IndyCar Series. Expect to see heavy promotion on Patrick next year by the network through its various platforms. Thus, expect to see and hear more about Patrick next season than you have already. If you don't like it, change the channel.
NASCAR -- A sport looking to expand its reach to a younger crowd and to females has the potential to do so with Patrick. If she has success, watch NASCAR capitalize on it.
Danica Patrick -- Expectations are high and there are critics ready to pounce if she fails. Her marketing ability should help her overcome early woes, but if the struggles persist, she will be looked upon as only a fad and a marketing tool. With a move to a bigger stage, it means more people are watching. Success can be greater but so can failure.
IndyCar -- Sure, Patrick hasn't won in three years and some often viewed her as a spokesmodel who raced only in May, but there are few other drivers in the series with any name recognition. While racing fans know who these drivers are, outsiders see that guy who won that dance competition and that's about it. In a sense, Patrick's departure can be a positive for the sport because it allows drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Helio Castroneves (that dance competition guy) and Tony Kanaan to no longer be weighed down by Patrick's aura. The question is if CEO Randy Bernard can get more people to watch this series.
Kyle Petty -- He's been among the most vocal critics of Patrick's move. If she fails, Petty's stock could rise in the broadcasting arena, further enhancing his image as one who is not afraid to hold back on what he thinks. If Patrick succeeds, there will be those who will want to tell Petty, "I told you so.'' Then again, Petty is telling it as he sees it and isn't that what an analyst is supposed to do?
Female drivers -- Patrick is scheduled to make her Cup debut next year, a decade after the last female, Shawna Robinson, competed in the Cup series. Patrick will be only the second female to compete in Cup in more than 20 years. If she succeeds, she could create opportunities for other female drivers working their way through the ranks. If she fails, the path to Cup could become much more difficult for other female drivers unless they truly stand out on the track.
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found athere.