They're NASCAR's two most high-profile imports since Tony Stewart left IndyCars in 1999 and Juan Montoya bailed on Formula 1 almost a decade later. One is a GoDaddy girl with international star power, the first woman to ever lead laps at the Indianapolis 500; the other a freestyle motocross and rally legend whose influence extends to an MTV series and 3D movie.
Despite their wildly different backgrounds, it's inevitable that Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana are going to draw some comparisons for their celebrity.
The real question, of course, is which one is going to be the better stock car driver?
Patrick is now in her third year of racing stock cars and first of full-time competition, currently ranked 10th in series points for JR Motorsports with two top-10 finishes. Pastrana, meanwhile, has run eight races for RAB Racing with a best finish of 13th and a few difficult outings.
But with time to devote to developing his craft in lower-level stock car racing, Pastrana has begun to master his new craft reasonably quickly. He's scored finishes of eighth or better in three of his past four K&N Pro Series East starts, including a best run of fourth at Iowa. The results have begun to translate to his Nationwide races, including last week's Atlanta event where he led his first career laps.
Patrick, on the other hand, struggled in her first two seasons while splitting time with her IndyCar commitments, and has been somewhat underwhelming this year. Given her media exposure and major sponsorship deals, a best finish of eighth at Texas isn't enough to impress the majority of the sport's pundits.
Part of the difference lies within the teams that field the two drivers. JR Motorsports hasn't won in two years, and let go competition director Tony Eury Sr. earlier today (via ESPN.com). Meanwhile, RAB works with Michael Waltrip Racing, which has put two drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year.
But Pastrana will drive for Nationwide Series stalwart Roush Fenway Racing tonight at Richmond. Team owner Jack Roush decided that Pastrana's performance was worthy of a one-off opportunity in the No. 60 car that won the series championship in 2007 with Carl Edwards. In eight races this year, that team has scored one victory (with Edwards at Watkins Glen) and five top-10s, meaning the time is now for Pastrana to show what he can do in first-tier equipment.
Tonight's race won't bring us a definitive answer about whether Pastrana or Patrick is the better stock car driver. But there's no doubt that Pastrana is grasping the format more quickly than Patrick did, and is earning his way through the ranks quickly with his talent. If he can put together a top-10 run tonight, or even manage to crack the top five, we may be closer to making a fair assessment.
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