Bond with Earnhardt helped lead to Danica's NASCAR deal

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The acquaintance began in a fitting fashion for titans: in an expensive car, on a winding road in Monte Carlo, after dinner with two international pop stars, hours after wrapping a music video shoot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, disarmed and disengaged from their "normal" lives, chatting about the weight of notoriety and glamorous life in general with one of the select few who could relate.

Earnhardt Jr. admitted how much he disliked doing interviews. Patrick marveled at how shy he was in comparison with the image portrayed in his Budweiser commercials. They laughed about the absurdity of being a huge fan of Jay-Z, then suddenly winding up in Monaco, street racing in one of his videos.

"We hung out that night," Patrick said. "We went out to dinner with Beyonce and Jay-Z and it was cool and everything. They had an early morning flight, so we decided to just stay up until their flight."

When Patrick began to take more seriously the possibility of a dalliance or even a career diversion into NASCAR this spring, Earnhardt was one of her first calls. And after weeks of negotiations and miniscule detail-wrangling, Patrick announced on Tuesday that she has signed a two-year deal to race stock cars with JR Motorsports, the team Earnhardt owns with Rick Hendrick.

But ultimately, the presumption that Patrick was attracted to Earnhardt Jr.'s race team because of an acquaintance or their commonality of fame may be slightly simplistic, said Marshall Carlson, president of the Hendrick Motorsports team that has a strategic alliance with JR Motorsports.

The road to Patrick's NASCAR career had begun in Monte Carlo. But another Earnhardt drove it home.

It was Kelley, Earnhardt Jr.'s sister and general manager.

"There was some initial contact (between Hendrick and Patrick)," Carlson said, "then Kelley and Danica got on the phone, one on one. That was the seed of it all. ... Kelley and Danica have really built a relationship, and I think they eventually will build a friendship."

Maybe some of that has to do with dinner with pop stars and car rides in Monte Carlo. Some undoubtedly involves Kelley brokering one of the most scrutinized team switches in NASCAR history, when Earnhardt Jr. left the team their late father founded for them to run to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

"(Kelley Earnhardt) is not frightened by the fame," Carlson said. "She is used to working with big identities. She has confidence in that realm."

And these are mighty realms, realms where Jay-Z, an investor in the New Jersey Nets, asks team president Brett Yormark -- a former NASCAR executive -- in 2006 to land racing's most popular stars within days of shooting for his "Show Me What You Got" video. Yormark made contact with IRL officials, who made a pitch to Patrick, and were stunned to learn that within 24 hours she was on a plane from Phoenix to Monte Carlo. A similar dispatch to Earnhardt's realm secured his services. Earnhardt Jr. is a fascination to his counterparts in other series. His autographed memorabilia hangs in their game rooms after chance meetings or sponsor commitments. They recount the experiences. He wasn't what Patrick expected.

"I remember talking to him in the car when we were in transit during the Monte Carlo shoot and he was talking to me about interviews, and he just doesn't like them. It just isn't his thing," Patrick said. "He doesn't feel comfortable. He gets nervous. I think it's really cute and endearing, the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. get nervous. So he's kind of quiet."

Quiet, much like Patrick's declared Nationwide schedule. She would not confirm her commitments other than to say "the focus" would be concentrated before and after the 17-race Izod IndyCar Series season, which runs from March 14 to Oct. 2. It is speculated she would contest events at Daytona, Fontana, Calif., and Las Vegas before the IndyCar opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then she may enter a few during the season before closing with the last six Nationwide events of the year after the IRL finale at Homestead.

"I'm starting to get a little bit nervous that now it's my time to do my part of the deal," Patrick said at a glitzy press conference in her hometown of Phoenix. "Now it's time to get to business and learn these cars."

Patrick has gone more than seven years between stock car tests. In June of 2002, in a session arranged by Ford and benefactor Bobby Rahal, she paced a ppc Racing Nationwide car for 285 laps at half-mile Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway. The session, overseen by crew chiefs Harold Holly and Steve Addington -- who went on to win 12 Cup races with Kyle Busch -- drew raves as Patrick stayed within reasonable lap times of veteran Mark Green while testing various tire compounds.

"She began giving me great information right away, and that enabled us to progress quite quickly. We went through a large number of changes to the car and she was able to describe and feel everything we did," Holly said.

Then-Ford Racing Technology director Dan Davis said at the time that Patrick "exceeded our expectations in every way." Patrick's first steps toward a stock car career diverted back to open wheel when Rahal, who shepherded her through various ladder series, gave Patrick her first IRL ride in 2005.

Patrick is scheduled to participate in the Dec. 18-20 ARCA test at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the season-opener there on Feb. 6. Former Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Tony Eury Jr. -- who began Patrick's gastric NASCAR indoctrination with a present of eight boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts -- will run her program.

Patrick, a one-time race-winner in the IRL who finished a career-best fifth in points this season, called the JR Motorsports opportunity "a ride really worth fighting for" because of its competitiveness. Brad Keselowski won four races and was third in points for the team in the Nationwide Series this year. Kelley Earnhardt said an expectation of top-15 finishes was "reasonable."

Patrick's possible ascension to NASCAR's top level is much a source of speculation, assuming she likes and can handle the form of racing. She said there is "no timeframe" for an eventual progression to Sprint Cup. Public declarations of timetables or definable goals are being tempered by "incremental progression." Patrick's possible Sprint Cup future has not been broached, Carlson said, with HMS. The odd timing of her new contract with Andretti Autosport and Hendrick driver Mark Martin's next scheduled retirement are "totally coincidental," Carlson said.

Patrick begins a two-year contract with Andretti in 2010 with a mutual option for 2012. Martin has announced he will retired from the No. 5 Chevrolet after the 2011 season.

But ...

"If she's an ace, I don't want to rule it out," he conceded. "But Danica has made it clear she wants this to be incremental. She wants to come in and learn." president Bob Parsons, however, said the thought "makes my eyes twinkle."

Kim Green, Patrick's race strategist in 2007 with Andretti Green Racing, called Patrick "a very talented young lady," and said balancing external pressure and "being very popular, and promoting yourself and obviously you're trying to make money outside the race car" will be difficult tasks, but he called her "one of the most determined race car drivers I've seen."

"I think if she gets enough seat time, she should do pretty well," he said. "She's done pretty well at every level she's gone into. She needs a good team around her."

Rahal said Patrick was "lucky" to have defending Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira as teammates for her debut IRL season in 2005, but added, "I have no question she'll be able to drive a stock car around."

Patrick left Rahal Letterman for Andretti Green and a more lucrative contract, and Rahal steadfastly agrees with her decision to make money in NASCAR while she can -- if she can -- if she wants.

"But are the good old boys going to welcome her? We'll see," he said.

The most important of the good old boys already has, and perhaps more importantly, so has his sister.