Tom Bowles
Thursday November 5th, 2009

What's the best way to push criticism out of today's sports news cycle?

Simple: Come up with other news to overshadow the criticism.

Danica Patrick's publicized negotiations with JR Motorsports this week proved curious timing at best, considering the outrage resulting from last Sunday's lackluster race at Talladega. Her flirtation with stock cars was re-elevated to nationwide status by an ESPN story, even though's Bruce Martin first reported it back in the beginning of October.

Regardless of motive, Patrick's move to NASCAR appears to be all but a done deal. Whether the signing gets announced next week, next month, or early next year, expect her to show up to Daytona in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet. Her first race will likely be in the ARCA Series, after which she'll strap into her No. 5 Chevy for the 300-mile Nationwide race (the sport's equivalent of AAA baseball) on Saturday, Feb. 13. She'll run about a dozen races, dependent largely upon her adjustment to stock cars and the expanded schedule of going above and beyond her 17 scheduled weekends in IndyCar.

But even six or eight Danica sightings will be a great thing for a sport struggling for something new to talk about. As it stands next season, no drivers will compete for Rookie of the Year in Cup for the first time since 1992. Driver development has slowed to a trickle, as both the economy and declining ratings have made the funding for new drivers dry up. Let's face it: We're in a recession and advertisers want a return on their investment, making a 19-year-old kid with nothing on his resume a shaky proposition compared to Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch.

That's where Patrick can turn the tide. Even if she struggles initially, her presence will brings in millions in marketing dollars and new companies will take an interest in the sport. By finalizing the decision, she'll make a statement that says, in essence, "This is the racing series that has the most potential for me to be successful." It takes away the momentum IndyCar had following their CART-IRL merger in 2008, as their Most Popular Driver unfolds an exit strategy right before their eyes, but or the first time in months, NASCAR might have something to point to and say, "Look! We've got a major superstar in auto racing who still believes in our success." It will also help other drivers who are dragged in on her coattails, with NASCAR's main feeder series benefiting from the "up-and-coming" talent label that it's struggled to reattach for years.

But whether Danica will be successful over the long haul is yet to be seen. Open-wheel converts have jumped to NASCAR with mixed results: For every champion (Tony Stewart), there's a dud (Dario Franchitti) who went running back in shame within 12 months. Analyst Rusty Wallace suggests there's a three-year learning curve in the stock car circuit, and recent converts Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish, Jr., and A.J. Allmendinger are proving him right.

So will Patrick's dozen races a year be enough for her to make a successful transition? Stewart's shown it can be done, after 36 starts, six top fives, and seven top 10s over three years in the Busch Series, before he jumped to Cup full-time in 1999. Patrick's involvement with Hendrick opens the door for Stewart to act as a mentor as she follows a similar path. But Patrick's schedule in open-wheel is far larger than Stewart's ever was, creating the biggest adjustment for someone used to three weeks off DURING the course of an IndyCar season. This time around, she'll be lucky to have a chance to breathe.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more of a figurehead in the deal, he'll still be able to relate to Patrick. Both will enter 2010 with little to no margin for error; one crash, and critics will immediately claim Patrick made the wrong move, while Earnhardt deflects more criticism in a day at Hendrick than most drivers endure an entire season. With the best equipment money can buy, excuses will no longer be an option for Patrick, and she'll be able to vent to someone that understands.

In the end, transitioning to NASCAR gives Danica the best shot at success, which is why the move is a no brainer. If she succeeds, Mark Martin's or Jeff Gordon's retirement would open the door for Danica to drive at the Cup level for Hendrick in 2012. But five or six DNFs in a dozen stock car starts, and chances are that Patrick will run back to IndyCars as fast as Franchitti.

Right now, that's all that the series can pray for, as NASCAR has used one of the few bullets left in its rapidly depleting supply.

• With the Talladega debacle simmering strong in fans' minds, the unanswered question is whether there'll be changes in the restrictor plate package prior to this February at Daytona. The answer so far? Nothing definitive. From what I'm hearing, any changes won't be announced for several weeks...

• While Jimmie Johnson only needs to average 10th-place finishes to claim his fourth straight title, expect the racing to get more aggressive these last few weeks as drivers look to build momentum to challenge him in 2010. With pride versus points on the line, there's also a long list of superstar drivers desperate to end the year with a win. Among those still shut out of Victory Lane in 2009: Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick.

• With David Stremme released from Penske Racing this week, there's now just one driver set to run every race without a top 10 finish: Paul Menard. Yet with his family's multi-million dollar sponsorship tied along with him, he's been courted for 2010 by everyone from Richard Childress Racing to Robby Gordon Motorsports. All indications are that he'll stay put at Yates, but the fact that a driver with so little success gets so much attention these days demonstrates how desperate the financial situation is in the Sprint Cup garage.

• This one's got me scratching my head. Even though Kurt Busch was all but eliminated from title contention on Sunday, Pat Tryson announced that he'll remain the crew chief through the end of 2009, despite plans to bolt for Michael Waltrip Racing after the season. Penske won't give his star driver a chance to test out a new head wrench ... but he has no qualms releasing David Stremme with three weeks left so that Brad Keselowski has a head start for 2010. That makes sense ... how?

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