PHOENIX – Danica Patrick received all kinds of advice during her lengthy flirtation with NASCAR. Some encouraged her to give it a try, while others openly wondered why IndyCar’s biggest star would open herself up to such scrutiny.
Now that she’s officially a part-time NASCAR driver – she announced a two-year deal Tuesday to drive for the second-tier Nationwide Series team owned by Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – how will she be received?
“I expect her to be eaten up by the wolves,” said Kelley Earnhardt, general manager of JR Motorsports.
Earnhardt quickly said she was only joking, and clarified that she expects Patrick to be respected immediately. But there’s no doubt Patrick will face an enormous spotlight as she tries to become the only female driver currently competing in one of NASCAR’s top two series.
Patrick will run a full IndyCar Series schedule with Andretti Autosport and squeeze NASCAR in when she can. Her immediate plans are to participate in the ARCA test next week at Daytona International Speedway and make her stock-car debut in that series opener on Feb. 6 – one day before she’ll star in two Super Bowl ads for sponsor GoDaddy.com.
JR Motorsports fields cars in the Nationwide Series but does not have a schedule mapped out for Patrick. Unclear is how many races she’ll run, when she’ll fit them in, or when she’ll get the seat time needed to learn how to drive a heavy stock car.
Patrick said she can handle the heavy workload.
“If I could show you my schedule these days – I don’t even know what airline I’m getting on anymore, just what time the flight leaves,” Patrick said. “I asked Mark Martin ‘How do you do it?’ and he said he got used to it. I have no doubt I will get used to it.”
Patrick unveiled her green and orange No. 7 Chevrolet in a news conference at Chase Field with GoDaddy.com, which is sponsoring her in both series, as well as Martin in the premier Sprint Cup Series. GoDaddy had an existing relationship with JR Motorsports that helped pave the way for Patrick to choose the Earnhardt-owned team over everyone else jockeying for her in NASCAR.
She took a summer tour through North Carolina meeting various drivers and car owners, and there was a time when former IndyCar Series champion Tony Stewart was thought to be the front-runner for her move to NASCAR.
In the end, though, the crossover relationship with GoDaddy made JR Motorsports the obvious choice. Although the deal was only announced Tuesday, it’s believed Patrick had settled on the organization many weeks ago and had only been waiting to announce her IndyCar deal to finalize the NASCAR contract.
“There’s no mystery that I went to Charlotte during the summer and visited with various teams,” said Patrick, adding she picked JRM because “first and foremost, I’m going to drive for a great team. There is adequate and proper support.”
Sponsorship concerns, series stability and increased potential earnings have led several open wheel drivers to migrate to NASCAR, but with very limited success. Juan Pablo Montoya left Formula One and didn’t begin to compete at a consistent level until this past season, his third since the move.
Three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. has had a very rough go of it during his two full seasons in NASCAR, and Dario Franchitti lasted just half a season before returning to IndyCar this past year and winning the title.
So there’s been rampant speculation as to how the 27-year-old Patrick will fare. Although she’s enormously popular and marketable, she has just one victory in five seasons of IndyCar racing. She has one win, last year in Japan, and 16 top-five finishes.
She was fifth in the standings this past season.
But she insisted she’s ready to try something new while still holding down her day job.
“It’s time for the hard work, time to buckle down and learn how to drive these cars. It’s going to be challenging,” she said. “I’m always looking for the next challenge, and there’s still plenty of challenges left in IndyCar. I want to win a lot more races. I want to win the Indy 500. And I want to have fun.”