Jeff Gordon believes Danica Patrick has plenty to prove in NASCAR while living up to the expectations being set on her. The four-time Cup champion says NASCAR-bound Patrick comes into the sport with massive hype due to her popularity, although she still has to prove her worth with results, following her announcement of a full-time switch from IndyCar next year.
Speaking ahead of this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Bristol, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was asked about how Patrick's move to NASCAR compared to when he entered Cup competition in 1992. He said that if there was any hype at the time, it was more because of his performances on his way up through the stock car ladder, not due to his popularity.
"I was not that popular at the time I made my move," said Gordon. "But I was winning races in the Busch Grand National Series. And so to me, if there was any hype – I didn't think there was that much – it was more of just from a performance standpoint.
"I think Danica still has to prove herself from a performance standpoint. She's, I think, impressed a lot of people in some of her performances this year. But I think she still has a long way to go.
"I think she's great for the sport. I think it's awesome to have her making that announcement to be full time. And so I think we'll just have to wait and see how she does in a full-time season and in those Cup events that she's planning on doing. It should be very interesting.
"To me, it's far more challenging for her than it was for me, because I didn't have that kind of hype and expectations and that many eyes on me – even though I felt like I did, I know I didn't.
"The most challenging year in my racing career was definitely my rookie year in Nationwide and my rookie year in Cup, because you feel like you have so much to do to step it up and to live up to any expectations that there are. She certainly has a lot to live up to."
Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will run Patrick full time in the Nationwide Series next season with his JR Motorsports squad, admits there's plenty of criticism toward Patrick but he reckons she doesn't let it get to her.
"She faces a lot of tough criticism and she does a good job of handling it," Earnhardt said. "I think she does a good job of keeping a good attitude, not letting that kind of stuff change the person you are. She knows what she is here to do.
"She loves to drive racecars and she wants to enjoy doing that and try to be the best she can at that. She keeps a real good attitude about it; doesn't let some of the harsh criticism get her down or anything."
While Earnhardt said he it would be hard for Patrick to turn down the possibility of a Sprint Cup debut at the 2012 Daytona 500 with Stewart Haas Racing, Gordon was supportive of the idea. He said Patrick showed potential last month at Daytona when she led the Nationwide race and was a contender for victory.
"She did pretty well in the Nationwide race," said Gordon. "To me, that was a testament to what she is capable of doing. So I don't see why that would be the case if she has; I mean, she's racing the Indianapolis 500 and to me, that's pretty challenging.
"So I think if that's where they want to make her debut, I wouldn't have any heartache against it because of the tracks that she's raced at in the Nationwide Series.
"To me, it's when you've never raced at a superspeedway, especially with the tandem drafting that we have now. If you'd never done that before and never been on a superspeedway before, then I might question it. But that's not the case for her."
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is set to run Patrick in eight to 10 events NASCAR's top series in 2012, was non-committal on Patrick entering the Daytona 500 next year when asked about her part-time schedule next year.