Danica Patrick Mania Strikes Again!

Art Northrup, Jr.Contributor IAugust 18, 2009

RICHMOND, VI - JUNE 26:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Boost Mobile Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda during practice for the IRL Indycar Series SunTrust Indy Challenge on June 26, 2009 at the Richmond International Speedway in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Danica Patrick recently visited Tony Stewart's shop (some say others', too), and in the last few days all the talk about her leaving the IRL for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series started back up again.  Of course, it would only make sense to visit team operations in person if you even had a passing fancy about driving in NASCAR, but I still think all the fuss about Danica is to raise the bidding price for her next IRL contract.  She is a "brand" you know!

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Danica and hope she continues to improve in the IRL, but that’s where she needs to stay.  She’s more consistent this year, with nine top-10 and five top-five finishes in 13 races (so far), including finishing third at the Indy 500.  But Indy cars are about finesse driving, not fighting an "ill handling" car that weighs over twice as much and comparatively speaking, has the aerodynamics of a brick—no "trimming the wing angle" in NASCAR, Danica.

Some have said Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish made the jump straight from Indy cars to NASCAR's top series, but they drove other series such as ARCA, Busch (now Nationwide), Truck before going full-time in Sprint Cup.  Danica would have to do the same thing to have any chance of being competitive in the Sprint Cup Series and I thought it would be interesting to have a brief look at the experience of drivers who ran IRL and/or CART Indy cars before moving to NASCAR.

Note: Several drivers (including Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman) ran USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown open-wheel cars before moving to NASCAR and that experience is extremely valuable (much more so than IRL / CART), but I’ll just mention the drivers who competed in IRL/CART.  The driver information below is from the "Drivers" section on NASCAR.com (except for John Andretti):

1) Tony Stewart—Completed 1,100 miles of racing May 27, 2001, finishing sixth in the Indianapolis 500 and third in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.  Raced both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on May 30, 1999, finishing ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte.  Won the Indy Racing League championship in 1997.  Earned 1996 IRL rookie of the year; also Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year in '96 after taking the pole and leading the first 44 laps.

Stock car series (prior to Sprint Cup): Nationwide; also Truck Series.

2) Juan Pablo Montoya—Started second and won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his first trip to the Brickyard.  Spent two years in CART, winning 10 races.  Won the CART championship in 1999, his rookie year.  Won seven races in 1999, including three in a row, both rookie records.  Youngest CART champion in series history.  Set a rookie record by leading 167 out of 200 laps during his Indianapolis 500 win.

Stock car series: Nationwide.

3) Sam Hornish, Jr.—Only three-time IRL champion in series history.  IRL career started in 2000 with rookie of the year honors.  Three IRL wins in 2001 on his way to his first championship.  Won five races in his 2002 championship winning season and had four wins in his 2006 championship winning season.  Won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006.

Stock car series: Nationwide.

4) Robby Gordon—Qualified outside front row (third) and finished 22nd after a gearbox failure in the 2003 Indianapolis 500.  Qualified 11th in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and completed "double-duty" by competing in both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, finishing eighth and 16th, respectively.  Led 22 laps in the 2001 Indy 500.  In the 2000 Indy 500, qualified fourth and finished sixth.  Led 33 laps near the end of the 1999 Indy 500, only to run out of fuel on the last lap, relegating him to a fourth-place finish.  Ran his own team in CART in 1999 and for Arciero-Wells Racing in 1998.  Won CART races at Detroit and Phoenix in 1995.

Stock car series: None (unless you count IROC—second in 1996 and ‘97).

5) John Andretti—Raced in the Indy 500 1988 through 1994 and 2007 through 2009.  Joined the PPG Indy Car World Series (CART) in 1987, winning the Rookie of the Year award.  One win and 61 top-10s in 74 career races in CART.  Became the first driver in history to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, finishing 10th at Indy and 36th in the Coca-Cola 600 after suffering mechanical failures.

Stock car series: Busch, also Truck Series.

I'll also mention:

6) Casey Mears—In 2001, scored two top-10 finishes in four starts in CART after replacing Alex Zanardi, who was involved in a serious accident.  In 2000, made first career CART start at Fontana, finishing a career-best fourth.

Stock car series: ARCA, Nationwide.

Okay, now let’s have a look at Danica’s record. 

She moved to England in 1998 to try her hand at open-wheel.  In 2001, she won the Gorsline Scholarship Award for top upcoming road-race driver, eventually finishing third in the Toyota Atlantic Championship in 2004, and was the first female driver to win a pole position.  In 2005, she became the fourth female to race in the Indianapolis 500.  (The others were Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno.)

Danica was the first female to lead the Indy 500 (19 laps) and her fourth-place finish was the highest finish of any female at the time—this year she finished third.  She was the first female to win an Indy car race—the 2008 Japan 300.

Danica started racing go-karts at age 10, but has never raced a stock car or anything even close.  John Andretti has a lot more experience than Danica, and although she has a better Indy car record than Casey Mears, what she doesn’t have is three ARCA wins (2003) and six-and-a-half years NASCAR experience. 

Robby Gordon’s luck in IRL / CART cars hasn’t been good, but he’s got WAY more experience than Danica, in many more types of racing.  Just three wins in Sprint Cup, and two on the road courses (1 on each), but he's been running the full Sprint Cup season since 2002 and drove some Cup races—1991, ‘93, ‘94, ‘96, ‘98, 2000 and ‘01.

Danica’s so far out of Hornish, Montoya and Stewart’s league, she shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath with them—all three are former champions, and both Hornish and Montoya have won the Indy 500.  And of the six drivers mentioned above, the only one who didn’t run ARCA, Busch (Nationwide) and/or the Trucks before going full-time in Sprint Cup is Robby Gordon.  Now then, does anybody still think that Danica can jump straight into a Sprint Cup car and be competitive?

Checking different sources, I saw the below question and answer in an article published in Auto Racing Daily (July 18):    

Would you want to be in a Cup car from the start, or would you be willing to drive a few races in NASCAR's secondary series?

"Probably a while ago when I started thinking about the future a little bit and what I was going to have a look at...I definitely thought you'd go straight from the top of one sport to the next.  But in [listening to] people's advice and what they think is right, they say take your time and they say you need to start a little slower than that.  People want me to do well, if I ever do it, if I get to Cup.

"At some point you have to stop being naive and stop being stubborn and listen to people, so if that's the route I go, I would be open to doing some lower-formula stuff.  I would take that advice."

Interesting.  Wonder if she'd be willing to spend at least two full seasons in Nationwide?  I seriously doubt it.  But maybe she's seeing how difficult it is to make the transition.  Also, perhaps Dario Franchitti, now being third in the IRL points, just 20 behind the leader, after a dismal venture into NASCAR (injured in a Nationwide race, lost sponsorship for the Cup car), has gotten her attention. 

Danica has a realistic chance of winning in the IRL and with a little bit better equipment, at every race.  I believe Danica's business side says use the "image" and all the attention to get the best possible IRL deal—just a step up to the Penske and Target/Ganassi team level is all she needs.