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Patrick's Nationwide breakthrough proves she's making progress


Danica Patrick made history Saturday. Again. We should be used to it by now, but her fourth place in the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas caught everybody off guard. It's the highest finish by a woman in a NASCAR national series race. Patrick did it in her 16th start, all in Nationwide.

Patrick has made a career of making dramatic breakthroughs. In her rookie Indianapolis 500 in 2005, Patrick roared into the national consciousness by leading with seven laps to go. She settled for fourth, at the time the highest finish by a woman in the 500. Patrick also was the first female to lead the race. Sports stardom and endorsement deals followed. She became a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and a GoDaddy girl in Super Bowl commercials.

But it took her nearly three years to win in the IZOD IndyCar Series, at Twin Ring Motegi in April 2008. She was the first woman to win a closed-course race in a major racing series, big-time history. But in the period between her fourth at Indy and that victory, there were those who thought her fame was not justified by her talent. The reality was that Patrick was a young driver learning her craft and compiling competitive finishes and her team, Andretti Autosport, was steadily losing ground to Roger Penske's and Chip Ganassi's teams.

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Patrick began exploring a move into NASCAR last year, running 13 races in Nationwide. She's with one of the best teams, JR Motorsports, and a top crew chief in Tony Eury Jr. and the wise Tony Eury Sr. in the same garage, too. Patrick openly admits she was disappointed in her results, with a best of 19th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami. But she was in a difficult situation, bouncing back and forth from types of cars as different as night and day. It's a learning curve Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti found very difficult, too.

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Patrick has improved her finishes over last year in all three Nationwide races. She went from a crashed-out 35th to 14th -- and became the first woman to lead a lap -- at Daytona. She was 31st at Phoenix in 2010 and 17th a week ago. Patrick was taken out in a crash at Las Vegas last year, 36th in the box score, and came back to take fourth.

Yes, Patrick was helped by it developing into a fuel-mileage race, but she came back from a lap down to be in position to take advantage. She passed Daytona 500 wunderkind Trevor Bayne, who finished fifth, and finished in front of Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, too. It wasn't a fluke. Patrick is figuring this stock car stuff out and in a hurry.

Patrick's run at Las Vegas may become the most profitable fourth-place in Nationwide history. She's a free agent at the end of this year and says she's open-minded to which team and which series she'll race in 2012. Patrick's credibility as a potential top runner in NASCAR went through the roof at Las Vegas.

Michael Andretti undoubtedly will try to keep Patrick, and she has a close relationship him. But can Andretti afford to pay what Patrick can demand from NASCAR? GoDaddy, which sponsors Patrick in both series, could also play a key role in her decision. Or, some sponsor and team could charge in with an offer nobody else can match. Danica Patrick is an icon. She has brand value that extends far beyond the racetrack.

Patrick has difficult choices ahead. IndyCar? Sprint Cup? A multiyear deal with a full Nationwide season and seven Cup races in 2012, leading to full-time Cup in 2013? Those are her options, and they're all going to be lucrative and provide chances to drive for front-line teams. The ball is in her court.

It's likely that Patrick's fourth at Las Vegas pushed her closer to making the change to NASCAR. It will give her more confidence and bring her more offers. Patrick was always going to have multiple bidders, but they weren't expected to start lining up their packages this soon.