It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Danica Patrick plans to give NASCAR a try.
After all, why would she use her summer vacation to tour North Carolina race shops if she had no intention of trying out stock cars? She’s twice been to Tony Stewart’s place and visited shops owned by Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, Jack Roush and Michael Waltrip.
She’s sought advice from Chip Ganassi, who owns both IndyCar and NASCAR teams, and last week spent time with Stewart, who has driver championships in both series.
It’s an awful lot of fact-finding for a driver simply trying to leverage a more lucrative contract in IndyCar, a series desperate to keep its most marketable driver. So it’s not a question of if Patrick plans a foray into full-bodied cars. It’s a matter of when, where and, most important, how?
What is clear is that a fast-track move to the premier Sprint Cup Series is not in Patrick’s best interest. There doesn’t seem to be a top-tier team with the financing to give her that opportunity. And even if it were feasible, Dario Franchitti’s failed 2008 venture into stock cars showed most team owners that drivers need to ease into such a transition.
Juan Pablo Montoya, of course, moved quickly into the Cup after a handful of lower-level races. But the former Formula One star is a unique talent, and even with his skills it’s taken him nearly three full years to become consistently competitive.
Same goes for Sam Hornish Jr., the three-time IndyCar Series champion who is still trying to find his footing in NASCAR. Although he’s probably the most improved driver of 2009, Hornish still has only six top-10s in 61 starts to show for his fledgling NASCAR career.
So Patrick is most certainly headed back to IndyCar next season for a full schedule and a run at the championship. Her time in NASCAR will likely be built around her full-time job, and the rigors of trying to figure out a stock car should lead to some scheduling nightmares.
She’ll need testing, and lots of it. And that’s going to require carving out a chunk of time in an already busy schedule of public appearances, promotions, marketing, and, of course, racing.
Patrick will also need to find a NASCAR team with a good deal of time and money to spend on driver development. Ganassi spent carefully on Montoya’s training in the ARCA and Nationwide Series, and Roger Penske showed considerable patience in bringing Hornish along.
Finding the perfect match is not easy. Stewart seems the ideal candidate to mentor the darling of American racing.
“I can pretty much guarantee at some point she’s going to be over here,” Stewart said last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“She’s looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do. It looks like fun. It looks like a lot of work, but it looks like fun. She doesn’t have some misguided idea that it’s going to be easy doing it. She wants to do it the right way. She has the intention of doing everything right.”
But a deal with Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t a slam dunk.
For starters, Stewart doesn’t even have a Nationwide Series team right now. Since that’s where Patrick should start, Stewart would either have to quickly put a team together or align with an owner who currently has a suitable program. The latter isn’t difficult — he could partner with Kevin Harvick Inc. or JR Motorsports, two teams that enjoy giving upstart drivers seat time. Plus, Stewart already drives some for KHI and is to race for JRM later this season.
Then there’s a question of financing. Although Stewart has done very well in his first season as NASCAR team co-owner, he still hasn’t sold all of teammate Ryan Newman’s Cup car.
And there’s Stewart pressing list of priorities: Get Newman into the Chase, become the first driver/ owner to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 and continue bringing in new partners since somebody has to pay the bills on all his ventures.
Of course, none of that rules Stewart out of the mix. He’d love to pull off a deal with Patrick and add that to his growing resume of business projects.
In some shape or form, she’s on her way, and it may be as soon as next year. Putting together the right package to bring her to NASCAR won’t be easy, but somebody is going to figure it out. And soon.