Danica’s slow approach is smart

It’s official – Danica Patrick will be going stock car racing in

2010.

Folks, I think there’s a lot of excitement surrounding this

news.

As I have said for the past several months, I am so proud of

the way she, her people and JR Motorsports are approaching this.

When you think about it, she’s taking a step backward by going from

being a star in the IndyCar Series to being a rookie in the stock

car world and running a partial schedule of Nationwide Series, ARCA

and who knows what else along with her IRL schedule. Hopefully for

her, everybody has been studying what it takes to pull somebody

from open-wheel racing and throw her to the wolves in stock car

racing.

A lot of people will be looking at successful crossover

drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya in an effort to figure out what

Danica can do to succeed. Well, first of all, there are very few

people as talented as Montoya behind the wheel – he has proved that

in almost everything he has climbed into. But I think the biggest

thing is that aside from his talent, Montoya and others who have

succeeded have been able to learn the nuances of our sport. That’s

why the approach taken by Patrick and her team in that she will dip

her toes slowly into the stock-car waters is so smart. This is the

toughest form of motorsports racing in the entire world, and it’s

going to take time to learn what it takes.

If you remember, Dario Franchitti jumped into NASCAR the year

after he won the IndyCar Series championship with little to no

full-body-car experience, and it turned out to be a baptism by fire

for that poor man. Yes, his situation was complicated by

sponsorship woes that eventually led to his leaving NASCAR less

than half a season later, but the learning curve was very steep.

We’ve almost seen the same thing with Sam Hornish Jr. Fortunately,

Penske Racing and the sponsorships involved have been patient

enough to live with Hornish, but there’s no question 2010 will be a

telltale year for the former Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar

Series champion.

In Dario and Sam’s instances, they only ran a handful of

Nationwide Series races before jumping in head first and, boom,

they went full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

That won’t be the case for Patrick. The Danica buzz will only

remain if she comes over here and is successful and runs well. If

she comes to NASCAR and only runs in the middle of the pack,

everybody will become a critic and begin saying, “I told you so” –

whether they believed in her at the beginning or not. Obviously,

there will be a huge buzz when she begins racing stock cars, but it

won’t be overbearing because she’s going to start small by running

ARCA and Nationwide Series races. She should be able to go out

there and run very competitively, because the better the equipment

you have in that series, the better you will run, and she is going

to have quality equipment. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case if

she came directly to Sprint Cup – if you base it simply on

equipment, there are 30 teams that can win any given race at that

level.

The script they are following is very, very smart, and

whoever came up with it deserves a lot of praise.

A lot of people have been asking how Danica will deal running

both an open-wheel and a stock-car schedule. Folks, I don’t think

the schedule itself will be too tough. That said, Danica has a

steep learning curve that has nothing to do with driving the race

car. The biggest thing she will have to adapt to is our cars don’t

have nearly as much downforce that the open-wheel cars have.

Hornish told me the tracks he has struggled with the most are the

ones he competed on while with the IndyCar Series. Why? Because you

run very differently in stock cars versus an open-wheeler. You

can’t run a stock car wide open at a track like you would an Indy

car; they’d be digging you out of the middle of the fence.

Also, there are so many things in our sport that have nothing

to do with racing the car itself that will be difficult to master.

Consider something like making a pit stop: Unlike open-wheel cars,

we use a tachometer to gauge our pit road speed. Then there’s

coming on and off pit road, the way we do pit stops themselves and

dealing with as many as 42 other cars on pit road. There are so

many little nuances she has to learn to be successful.

Nobody can tell you whether Danica will come to NASCAR full

time when her deal with Andretti Autosports is done, but this is a

good start for her.

In the spotlight

One hope I have is that this doesn’t prove to be another

distraction for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He needs less distractions in

his life. He needs to be 1,000 percent focused on driving the No.

88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Look at his teammates – Jimmie

Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin – other than their families and

their specific foundations or charity work, those guys focus on

their primary jobs. Junior has a lot going on, which may or may not

be a distraction, but when you look at the differences between him

and his teammates, it is one of the things that pops out.

Hopefully for Dale Jr., he can let his sister Kelley, Tony

Eury Jr., Tony Eury Sr. and the administrative team at JR

Motorsports worry about Danica Patrick. Even if he has nothing to

do with this deal, Dale Jr. will be overwhelmed by the media

attention this deal will bring, so I hope he can avoid it and focus

on his job with the No. 88 team.