Strip away the hype, the publicity, the emotions, the gender discussions and look at the cold, hard numbers and it's clear that Danica Patrick's transition to NASCAR will be the biggest challenge she's faced in her career.
Regardless of what one thinks of her driving ability – good, bad or indifferent – those who have arrived in NASCAR from the open-wheel ranks have struggled mightily adapting to low-downforce, weak-braking, high-center-of-gravity Sprint Cup cars.
Sam Hornish, a three-time IndyCar champion, washed out of the Cup Series after posting just two top-five finishes in 109 starts. Former Champ Car ace AJ Allmendinger is winless in 142 starts, during which time he's had but four top fives and ex-Red Bull Formula 1 pilot Scott Speed has fared no better.
Even the mighty Juan Pablo Montoya, winner of seven Formula 1 grands prix, the Indianapolis 500 and a former CART/IndyCar champion, has yet to win on an oval in 171 Cup starts. And three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti,had an average finish of 34.3 in his 10 career starts with Chip Ganassi's Cup operation.
Set against that sort of historical backdrop, Patrick's biggest challenge isn't that she's a woman; it's that those who have grown up driving open-wheel racecars have had a horrible time adapting to big, clunky stock cars. And she likely will, too.
Nevertheless, Patrick is enthused about her move to NASCAR, which in 2012 will consist of a full-time ride in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet Impala, with 10 races behind the wheel of a third (No. 10) Stewart-Haas Racing Sprint Cup car, starting with the Daytona 500. Her teammates and competitors are welcoming her with open arms.
“We're excited about it,” says Tony Stewart. “She's putting 100 percent into it and she is definitely deserving of an opportunity like this. We're excited and honored that she chose to do it with us.”
“We have seen Danica improve a lot to get to the point where she's at now,” says 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth, “and I think it will be a good next step for her to do the Nationwide Series every week.”
Good, yes. Easy? Not so much.
“Danica still has to prove herself from a performance standpoint,” states four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon. “She's impressed a lot of people with some of her performances this year. But I think she still has a long way to go. She's great for the sport. It's awesome to have her announce she's going full time. We'll just have to wait and see how she does in a full [Nationwide] season and in those select Cup events. It should be very interesting.”
What Patrick brings to the table are two things NASCAR craves right now: money and fans. She's one of only a handful of drivers with true star power, someone who can put butts in seats and move the needle on TV ratings. That her marketing acumen so far has outweighed her driving talent isn't lost on her competitors.
“It's far more challenging for Danica than it was for me because I didn't have that hype and expectation or so many eyes on me,” says Gordon. “I felt like I did, but I know I didn't. The most challenging years in my racing career were 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 the expectations. And Danica certainly has a lot to live up to.”
“Hype” is a word one hears a lot in connection with Patrick. “I really don't know how it will affect our organization but obviously there is a lot of hype around it and we've seen around other areas of the sport with a lot of hype there can be much disappointment. So I think we are all looking forward to just the experience of working with her,” says Ryan Newman, who will be her teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Fortunately for Patrick, in the Nationwide Series she'll have a boss who knows a thing or two about hype and (sometimes unfairly) high expectations. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns JR Motorsports with sister Kelley, is squarely in Patrick's corner.
“She faces a lot of tough criticism and she does a good job of handling it,” says Earnhardt. “I think she does a good job of keeping a good attitude, not letting that kind of stuff change the person she is. She doesn't let some of the harsh criticism get her down. She knows what she's here to do. She loves to race and she wants to enjoy doing that and be the best she can.”
Realistically, 2012 is very much a work in progress for Patrick. Asked how she'd define success in NASCAR, Patrick said, “The same way I'd define success in IndyCar: getting to Victory Lane, running up front and being competitive every weekend.”
And that could well happen for Patrick, but it is likely to be a slow, uphill climb. Still, her full-time arrival to NASCAR ought to be a positive for all involved.
“I think that she has shown to be a tough racer and a marketing machine,” says Earnhardt. “She is really savvy and I think she just opened the door to a lot more opportunities for other women, regardless of whether she measures up to everybody's expectations or not.”