The two most popular drivers in auto racing -- Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- may soon be involved in a limited NASCAR arrangement, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed to SI.com.
The other side of the Patrick puzzle may soon fall into place as Hendrick said Sunday afternoon that Patrick's agent at IMG has met with the team about a limited schedule of ARCA and NASCAR Nationwide Series races to go along with the IndyCar Series contract she signed to remain at Andretti Green Racing.
According to Hendrick, the plan would be to put Patrick in the JR Motorsports team that is owned by Hendrick driver Earnhardt, Jr. with sponsorship from GoDaddy.com.
"We have no deal but she has spoke with Kelley Earnhardt [Dale Jr's sister who handles that teams business affairs] about a limited number of NASCAR races in that car," Hendrick told SI.com. "I have had some conversation and Kelley Earnhardt has had some conversation with that but Kelly is heading that up.
"GoDaddy.com would be involved because of Danica's involvement with Danica and with JR Motorsports. Kelley talked to her in the last week. We are looking at how it matches up with her IndyCar schedule. We are interested and think it would be neat but it has to work out for both sides."
Patrick signed a three-year IndyCar Series contract with team owner Michael Andretti two weeks ago but has remained quiet on that subject because of sponsor demands who want to have a major press conference to announce the signing. According to IndyCar Series sources, one of Patrick's sponsor contracts in IndyCar is about to expire so that announcement will not be made until the sponsor is ready to make the announcement.
"She has signed the contract, they just want to make sure the sponsor is ready to make the announcement," said an IndyCar Series official Saturday afternoon.
Hendrick stressed that any deal with Patrick has to make sense.
"I would just like to do whatever we can do to do it right," Hendrick said. "We wouldn't want to do it unless we can do it in a first-class way because that is what she deserves and what she wants. We are looking at her options and her IndyCar schedule so stay tuned.
"I think it's smart for her to stay in IndyCar fulltime and ease into NASCAR because as successful as she is she can taste both series without making a full-time commitment to NASCAR."
Hendrick welcomes the additional exposure and attention that Patrick would bring to his operation.
"I don't mind that," Hendrick said. "She's a racer and she is involved with GoDaddy, one of our big sponsors. I wish there were more testing time but that will be Kelly Earnhardt's call. We haven't really gotten serious yet."
Hendrick indicated that he would consider taking Patrick to a track that is not currently on the NASCAR schedule, such as the 1-mile oval in Rockingham, North Carolina, where she could put in 400- to 500-lap runs to help familiarize her to the stock car.
"We would do that," Hendrick said.
If Patrick shows she is capable of driving a stock car, the logical step would be for her to take over the No. 5 Sprint Cup car which will be driven for the next two years by Mark Martin. But Hendrick said don't hold your breath waiting for Martin to retire.
"Mark Martin is never going to retire," Hendrick quipped. "I'm going to retire before Mark Martin does."
While details of Patrick's new contract have not been disclosed, Andretti indicated there are limits to how much racing she can do outside of IndyCar.
Andretti wants his high-paid driver to focus on what he signed her to do -- try to become the first female driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title. So if Patrick signs with JR Motorsports or another team, look for her to run in fewer than 10 stock car events next season. In fact, five races next season would probably be a nice, logical step for her before she attempts to increase that schedule in 2011, if she likes the progress she is making.