Danica's slow approach is smart

BY Larry McReynolds • December 14, 2009

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.

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