| Danica Patrick :: Nick Laham/Getty Images for NASCAR|
Ever since Danica Patrick became a household name in 2005 by finishing fourth in the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR officials have been dreaming of this moment: her arrival in the Sprint Cup series. The wait is almost over. Patrick, who has been competing in IndyCar for the last seven years, will drive full time on the Nationwide circuit in '12 and part time in the Cup series, including in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Not since Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first start in NASCAR's top series at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999 has there been a more anticipated Cup debut.
Yes, Danicamania will be in full flower during Speedweeks as reporters from as far away as Japan chronicle her every move. Though her background is in open-wheel racing, Patrick, 29, has spent the past two seasons piloting a stock car part time in the Nationwide Series. Driving for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Earnhardt, Patrick has started 25 Nationwide races. She's never won, but she has steadily improved. Two years ago her average finish was 28.0; in 2011 it was 17.4. What's most encouraging to her crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., is that last season Patrick frequently displayed the car control and calculated aggression of a Cup veteran.
"Every time out I'm learning so much," Patrick told SI. "I'm getting better at restarts, pit stops, learning how to use the air to make a pass?everything."
Patrick will race in 10 Cup events this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. According to Tony Stewart, co-owner of SHR, the plan is to then move Patrick to the Cup series full time in 2013?if she proves she's ready. "Danica is a heck of a lot more than a pretty face," Stewart says. "She's got talent and, trust me, she's going to surprise a lot of people this year." Indeed, don't be shocked if Patrick becomes the first female driver to take a checkered flag in a Nationwide race. That may come as early as March 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where last year she finished a career-best fourth in a stock car?which is also the best-ever finish for a woman.