It seems as though at a certain point each year, for the past few years anyway, we invariably get into the “will Danica move to NASCAR” debate. In the past she’s been pretty quick to brush the talk aside, but now something has changed.
This is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a few weeks, but this recent New York Times article about Danica’s situation sparked quite a bit of discussion this week on the topic, and I figured I’d throw my two cents out there.
At the end of this season, Danica’s current IRL contract with Andretti Green Racing expires, and she will be a free agent. She is now saying that a possible opportunity to drive in NASCAR would be “interesting.”
A major draw for Patrick and her management team, is the level of exposure NASCAR has in this country. There is currently almost no comparison between the 75 million fan, broadcast on network TV, large corporate sponsorship world of NASCAR and the “seen on Versus” IRL. And if there is one thing Danica wants more of, it’s exposure. This is where her problems start.
First, Danica has now become more of a celebrity and a brand, then an actual racecar driver. She is the oddity in a sport dominated by males, and that makes her interesting and marketable. Her solid finishes at Indianapolis, the single win at Japan, and her on and off track antics made her famous, but it was the GoDaddy.com ads and racy photo shoots that brought her the celebrity status.
There is no doubt in my mind that if she showed real interest in NASCAR, she would be presented a number of opportunities. But those possible rides wouldn’t come because of Danica’s ability, they would come because of her marketability. A team that landed her would have a great deal of leverage with sponsors because of her status, and I’m sure there would be no shortage of companies willing to pony up the $20 million+ to sponsor her.
But once the honeymoon period was over and people started realizing that Danica couldn’t get it done in a Cup car, this would all come to a screeching halt.
Over the last three or four seasons we’ve seen several open wheel drivers make the jump to NASCAR. Guys like Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, AJ Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, and Scott Speed are the main examples. And these drivers all came to NASCAR at the top of their game. Among them are multiple Indy 500 wins, IRL and CART Championships, Formula 1 Grand Prix wins and podiums, and countless series wins.
Guess how many Cup wins these drivers combine for?
Remember that when you start picturing Danica behind the wheel of a 3400 lb. stock car.
If these top open wheel drivers have struggled to find success (some struggle to even make races), how can she expect to compete? In 66 career IndyCar starts, Danica has one win, 12 top fives, and 37 top tens. And in those 66 races, she’s only led 84 laps. Keep in mind that IndyCar fields are usually in the low to mid 20′s, and that her lone win came on a fuel mileage gamble. Not exactly what I would call domination.
The comparison between an Indy car and Cup car really ends after the fact that they both have four wheels, a steering wheel, and an engine. Indy cars are light, have tons of downforce, and are set up by engineers. Cup cars are heavy, have very little downforce, and are set up by the driver’s butt. Indy cars are finessed, Cup cars are manhandled. And that’s why I believe Danica would jump in a Cup car and be embarrassed.
(Don’t take this opportunity to slam me about men vs. women issues. If Danica Patrick were Dan Patrick I would present the same argument.)
Here is the interesting part though. I think she and her management both know and understand that she would struggle. I don’t personally believe she has any intentions of making the jump to NASCAR, despite what she may say in the media.
With the IRL season now in full swing, I think Danica is making a power play. By hinting at a possible jump to NASCAR, she is forcing not only the hand of Andretti Green, but also that of the IndyCar Series and Tony George. She is the only real draw for a series that has become mired in mediocrity, and she knows it. With most of their races being dumped to a second tier cable network, George and IndyCar can’t afford to let their only known and marketable driver walk. They need her to help maintain any semblance of acceptable ratings.
On the flip side, NASCAR doesn’t need Danica. And I honestly don’t think Danica needs NASCAR. She gets a ton of airtime without the added fan base, and something tells me her bank account isn’t hurting.
Moving forward, I believe we will see Danica re-sign with Andretti Green, although it may take a while. But something tells me her deal to stay in IndyCar will be a little sweeter then her current deal, thanks to the deep pockets of Tony George.