Scott Dixon may be the key to Danica's NASCAR future

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Scott Dixon, who remains under contract with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, has been linked to a team owned by Gil de Ferran that is expected to join IndyCar next season after several years in the American Le Mans Series.

That would then open a seat that could be filled by Danica Patrick, whose contract with Andretti Green Racing expires this season. Patrick is represented by IMG, which is currently "gathering facts" on possibilities in both IndyCar and NASCAR.

Patrick and I had a lengthy conversation on the pit wall at Iowa Speedway on Saturday afternoon. She has not personally spoken to team owner Chip Ganassi about joining his IndyCar Series operation, but admitted that IMG officials have been in discussions with the IndyCar Series team owner who also owns a NASCAR Sprint Cup team.

Signing with Ganassi would give Patrick a chance to continue her IndyCar career while running in selected NASCAR races to determine if she wants to make a full-time move in the future.

"[IndyCar racing] is the type of racing that I love; this is the type of racing that I grew up with," Patrick said. "But I need to know what direction this series is heading and if it continues to grow, because NASCAR has a lot of fans and a lot of opportunities that any race driver would have to consider."

And while NASCAR has had issues with the economic downturn which has meant decreased attendance, lower television ratings and cutbacks from auto manufacturers General Motors and Dodge, Patrick believes the IndyCar Series would "love to have NASCAR's problems right now," because even in a reduced role, NASCAR is still the monster in American motorsports.

While AGR intends to make Patrick an offer to renew with the team, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing would be a serious contender in IndyCar by offering her a ride at a team that won the 2008 IndyCar Series title with Dixon behind the wheel.

Dixon's departure, however, would be a bit of a surprise, but the driver from New Zealand admits he has a tremendous amount of respect for de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 when he was at Team Penske.

Of course, Dixon also emphasized that it would take a great opportunity to lure him away from Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

If Dixon stays and Patrick signs to give Ganassi three drivers including Dario Franchitti, Dixon said he would have concerns about how well that would work.

"I've seen it where we have run three cars here and it didn't work out very well," Dixon said of 2005 when the team consisted of Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe and Dixon. "I just turn up and drive my car. If they run more cars out of this team, I have no idea what is going on there."

For her part, Patrick remains open to any possibility and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing would certainly provide her with a chance to compete for more IndyCar wins and contend for a championship.

"It's going to have to be a really good option for me as a driver and as a brand to expand beyond, because I already drive for a great team," Patrick said. "So we'll just have to see."

And the team appears to consider her a viable contributor to the operation, both on the race track and through its sponsor, Target stores.

"Danica Patrick is one of the best IndyCar drivers on the face of the earth," said Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "She is a quality IndyCar race driver and the thing that bothers me the most is first of all she doesn't get credit for being one of the best American drivers that's runs IndyCars and that needs to be said.

"I would hope she would concentrate her efforts on winning an IndyCar championship, winning IndyCar races and the Indy 500 because really that is what open wheel racers wants to achieve in the world."

Hull has a close working relationship with Ganassi but indicated in the end, it will be the team owner's decision. Still, it is undeniable that Patrick would provide tremendous value to the team's sponsor.

"I think that goes without saying for any sponsor whether you are with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing or any other team in this garage area -- she provides value back to the sponsors," Hull said. "I'm a racing guy. I work for the race team. If a race driver wants to talk to me about racing I would love to do that. Danica and I have talked about racing and that is it. The conversations have not been serious in any other way. I believe she has what it takes -- the ability and the desire. She has the primary focus. She wants to be a race driver and she has the ability to carry that off. When you see that in somebody and you see the fact that all they want to do is make themselves better every day, those are very special qualities."

Patrick has hired IMG to help her negotiate her next contract. IMG is now controlled by former NASCAR executive George Pyne and there are some members of the IndyCar Series staff that believe Pyne wants to take her to NASCAR rather than stay with the IndyCar Series.

"I've spoken to him before, but I don't think anyone's trying to push me," Patrick said. "They really want to just know what my thoughts are and what I want to do. At this point, I just want to know what my options are. So that's the point at which we're at right now is just collecting data and figuring out what our options really are - who is really serious.

In Sunday's Iowa Corn Indy 250, Patrick led twice for 24 laps to lead her first laps of the season before finishing ninth after overcoming flat tires when she ran over debris from a first-lap crash.

Patrick remains fifth in IndyCar Series points, but now trails leader Ryan Briscoe by 52 points as the series heads to Richmond for Saturday night's short-track race.

That's also a track that hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup races a year so that only adds to Patrick's contract saga. But the IndyCar starlet is open to advice from those who have tried it, including Franchitti, who won Sunday's IndyCar race.

"I got along great with Danica as a teammate at AGR; I don't know what she is going to do next year but if she wants to race for us I would have no problem with that," Franchitti said. "She came to a couple of Cup races last year because she and her husband live in Scottsdale, Arizona and they came to the Phoenix races. We talked about the tough points and she lived some of the tough points with me.

"She is well aware of the plusses and minuses but I would love to see her stay in the IndyCar Series. It would be cool if she was my teammate."

Patrick even asked me what she should do and I told her that she is this close to realizing her dream of winning an Indianapolis 500 and has shown steady improvement in every season she has been in the series to the point where she is contending for the IndyCar Series title.

To see the progress Patrick has made in five years of IndyCar racing is impressive. Given the same amount of time in NASCAR, she could show similar improvement but it remains a career gamble. And, is a team willing to have the patience to give her five years to perfect the craft?

These are all things that she must consider before signing her next contract. But with Chip Ganassi and Target as a viable option in IndyCar, Patrick could further the Danica Brand through Target while getting a ride that could ultimately win the Indy 500.

When Kasey Kahne outlasted Tony Stewart in the closing laps to win Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Infineon, it gave team partner Richard Petty a chance to return to victory lane for the first time since John Andretti won a race for Petty Enterprises at Martinsville, Virginia in 1999.

"It has been a long time, but when we joined with the Gillett crowd in the wintertime, we knew they had a good team," Petty said. "So we just brought in three or four different people and were trying to look at things different. But there are not a whole lot of changes. We've got the same cars and the same crews. You change a few people, but they've got a good organization."

Kahne's victory on a road course was surprising because prior to his win, he had never finished higher than 23rd at Infineon.

"To win any race and to win at a road course for me is crazy," Kahne said. "Since Darlington we've had a top-10 car ever single weekend. Whether we finished inside the top 10 or not, we've had a great car for a while and today on a road course."

While Petty Enterprises was once NASCAR's most successful team, it had been so long since a Petty-involved car made it to victory lane; it gave Richard Petty a new feeling.

"I guess this is win No. 1," he said. "Really I'm involved, but I am not as involved as I was when we used to have the place at Level Cross, North Carolina. And then when we moved to Morrisville last year, it kind of got away from it. Moved over here to Statesville and it's a little bit different territory because they already had everything, the system in place. They've changed a few, or we have changed a few of the systems, but the basic deal is just a continuation of what they've been doing.

"After you look at today, it looks like they've been doing pretty much what they needed to do. Again, this is just one race. So now we've got to go back and say what did we do, did we do anything different, and if we did we've got to do this again next week."

Perhaps Formula One teams should take a history lesson in what happened to IndyCar racing in the United States when there was a battle for control that led to two splits -- including the formation of CART in 1979 and the Indy Racing League in 1996.

Eight current Formula One teams are attempting to break away from F1, which puts Bernie Ecclestone's series in peril.

"I have given 35 years of my life and more to Formula One," Ecclestone, the ruler of Formula One, told The Times of London at this past weekend's British Grand Prix at Silverstone. "My marriage broke up because of Formula One, so I am sure as hell not going to let things disintegrate over what is, in the end, basically nothing.

"If you analyze the problems, there aren't any that can't be easily solved."

Ecclestone said that if the Formula One Teams Association went ahead with their decision to create a breakaway series, only disaster would follow.

"If that started, everybody would be suing everybody else and there would be no other series," he told the newspaper. "There would be nothing. It would be finished -- it would be a total disaster. Everyone would spend a fortune on lawyers and nothing will happen."

F1 teams at Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, BMW Sauber, Toyota, Brawn GP, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso said last week they would not compete in next year's world championship and would start their own series in 2010. This came after Max Mosley; the president of FIA -- F1's ruling body -- planned to introduce a budget cap of 40 million pounds.

Teams that break away will be fined heavily, according to Mosley while Ecclestone tries to keep his empire from crumbling.

"It's not a case of joining anybody against anybody... I know full well I have to keep Formula One on the road," Ecclestone said. "Frankly, if this hadn't had all come about like this, I think Max's intentions were that he wasn't going to stand again. The trouble with Max is, when he is challenged, it makes him want to stay on."

Ecclestone defended Mosley's cost-cutting plans as part of an attempt to save the sport, and said that if the teams committed themselves to Formula One for the next five years, he might drop the plans.

"We want the teams to commit. I've always said I don't care what they spend as long as they commit," Ecclestone said.

Last December, Honda announced its departure from Formula One due to the economic crisis; in the World Rally Championship, Subaru and Suzuki did the same. Three major car manufacturers leaving high-profile motorsport series within the same month was the spark that convinced both Mosley and the Formula One Teams Association that cost-cutting measures needed to be implemented quickly.

Shortly after Sebastian Vettel of Germany won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, word began to circulate through the paddock that Mosley would drop his plans for legal action and seek settlement with the F1 teams that want to bolt the series.

"There won't be any writ, I think we would rather talk than litigate," Mosley was quoted telling Italian television station Sky Italia shortly before the start of Sunday's 60-laps race, on the F1-Live website.

Only 24 hours earlier, Mosley had been on the attack and during an interview with the BBC had described some of the FOTA teams' representatives as "loonies".

But on Sunday, according to F1-Live, Mosley said he had invited the rebel teams to "sit down and iron out the last few difficulties... It is definitely getting better, but these things take time.

"The problem is that we have eight teams and some want to sit down and some don't. No doubt, eventually, they all will."

Even NASCAR's Jeff Gordon -- an avid Formula One fan -- thinks this is a battle that could screw up the sport.

"I don't see how you have a Formula I Series without a Ferrari in it," Gordon said. "I can't imagine the series out there without Ferrari or McLaren or Renault. They have so few teams as it is now, I would be very, very disappointed to see that happen. I really hope they get it straightened out. I've never seen that work for any sport out there and my fingers are crossed that they're going to get together and I'm going to enjoy every moment I can of the British Grand Prix this weekend and all the rest of the Grand Prix races coming up this year."

When it comes to creating a political mess, no one does it better than Formula One. This has all the makings of a debacle of international proportions.

But then we have come to expect nothing less from this crowd.

Richard Childress is the latest NASCAR team owner to make a public display of support after General Motors announced cutbacks to its NASCAR program last week.

"Everybody is seeing times that we never dreamed we would see," Childress said Friday at Infineon Raceway. "With General Motors and the Chevrolet product, they are going to be in racing. We had a really great meeting with them and they've got some great plans moving forward. And sure, we'll have to make some adjustments, but I know what Chevrolet has as a product line coming with fuel mileage and a lot of new things that they're working on and they're going to be a very strong company when they come out of this [bankruptcy procedure].

"We'll adjust with them and be okay. I've talked to the GM executives and I don't think they even have a clear direction yet through the bankruptcy."

So that led to the obvious question, how much are they cutting back?

"That's all business numbers and business deals," Childress said. "I don't go around asking people what they're paying ya'll," he said to the media.

Put it this way -- not as much as you would expect.

"I don't care where I am right now, I'll care when I'm in Richmond where we are. I've been in the top 12 before. We kind of drifted away and then now we're coming back. So you've got to be in the top 12 after Richmond. Today, it wouldn't really matter." -- Juan Pablo Montoya on being 12th in NASCAR Sprint Cup points.

"I'm really enjoying with my teammates. I mean, [Tony Kanaan] has a lot of experience and he is a really funny guy. And Danica sometimes seems, you know, angry, but she's not. She's really focusing on winning races. But I like her very much, too. And with Marco [Andretti], I go out to dinner or sometimes, you know I have night life with him. We're having fun. I don't know what he is drinking, because I'm so drunk every time. Sorry. No, I'm kidding. We drink just water." -- IndyCar Series driver Hideki Mutoh of Japan when asked if he is often the overlooked driver at Andretti Green Racing.

"I got in a cave the other night. They had wine down one side in big barrels and then they had wine down the other side. As we walked in I think we drunk something out of every barrel. That was a long deal. It was straight, and when we got to the other end, and when I turned around, that dad gum cave was like that and like that (indicating zigzagging). It changed after I went up through it. It was straight going in; it wasn't too straight coming out." -- NASCAR's Richard Petty on a wine-tasting tour while he was in the Napa Valley.

The return of Saturday night racing at Richmond International Raceway. While this is one of NASCAR's best tracks, it's the IndyCar Series that gets its chance in Saturday night's race making it a short-track battle under the lights. It also means driving back home afterwards and actually getting to spend a Sunday at home, and a chance to watch NASCAR Sprint Cup from New Hampshire on Sunday.