Danica Patrick’s fourth place finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas on Saturday brings up three big questions.
First, will her most recent success earn Patrick some respect from her critics and fendered-car brethren?
Before the howling begins about Patrick being the beneficiary of fuel strategies and not her racing ability, it’s also fair to say the same good fortune (and then some) benefitted Saturday’s Nationwide race winner Mark Martin.
Open-wheel fans will remember that Patrick was criticized after her only IndyCar victory in Motegi in 2008 because she didn’t need more fuel at the end of her race and many of her competitors did. Well, if that criticism is fair for Patrick, then it should also be leveled at NASCAR veteran Martin, the winningest Nationwide driver ever. He, too, was the benefactor of his competitors’ late-race refueling on Saturday. I won’t even mention Brad Keselowski’s flat tire.
The other two questions are even more intriguing. If Patrick continues her success in the Nationwide series, then later the Sprint Cup series, and at the same time experiences no further progress in IndyCar, is that an indictment of the Andretti Autosport team that has powered her around the open-wheel circuit since 2007?
Yes, Patrick has run up front at times on the IndyCar circuit, but her progress has stalled more recently, and Patrick hasn’t been shy about saying when she thought her equipment and crew weren’t up to snuff, most recently during last season. Maybe, as her critics say, Patrick is a whiner. Or maybe her complaints are justified.
The third big question is actually two questions in one. How much more success does Patrick need before getting shoved up to NASCAR’s top level, the Sprint Cup Series? And will Patrick mean as much to NASCAR as she has to IndyCar?
The answer to the first part: After another three or four top five finishes, her sponsor, GoDaddy, would probably push for the move to Sprint Cup. It likely wouldn’t be this year, but if Patrick can continue her success under the tutelage of the JR Motorsports team, don’t be surprised to see her running some Sprint Cup races next year. She’s already running against some of stock car racing’s biggest stars in the Nationwide series.
There’s been speculation that Patrick will eventually replace the 52-year-old Martin powered by Hendrick Motorsports and sponsored by GoDaddy. Martin’s contract with Hendrick expires in 2011.
Of course, that move would mean the end of her IndyCar career.
Which brings us to Part B of our last question. Can Patrick be the kind of star in NASCAR that she is in IndyCar?
NASCAR has more stars in its constellation than IndyCar, but Patrick should be able to give them a run for their money in terms of media buzz. (Before I start World War III among race fans, I’m talking about star power here, not necessarily driving ability.)
Patrick’s television commercials (especially those with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) are plastered all over broadcast TV. She is easily, like it or not, the most followed driver by the media during Nationwide races.
Her interview skills still need a bit of polish, but she seems to be maturing into her star role. I don’t think Patrick will ever prop up NASCAR the way she does IndyCar, but I think it’s difficult to argue that a Patrick success story on the Sprint Cup circuit wouldn’t give the good ole boys a needed burst of speed.