By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

No way. No way Danica Patrick quits open-wheel racing and jumps to NASCAR simply for a fatter paycheck, additional exposure and a chance to work for boss hog.

She's not Johnny Damon. She hasn't earned the right to be disloyal and respected at the same time. Before leaving Boston for New York, Damon helped the Red Sox break the curse. He accomplished everything he was supposed to in Boston before bouncing over to Steinbrenner's Benjamin Franklin-filled arms.

Danica Patrick
Seth Rossman/AP Photo
Remember, Danica Patrick has yet to win a race.

If Danica bolts Tony George's Indy Racing League for Brian France's money-soaked Nextel circuit before winning the Indy 500 -- or any race -- she's going to throw away much of the credibility she's gained over the past two years. She's going to give her critics all the ammunition they need to label her as an auto racing gimmick, a pretty marketing tool with limited driving skill.

I'd be devastated if she defected to NASCAR. Not because as an Indy native I believe in the superiority of Indy Car over stock car. I'd be crushed because Danica would be taking the easy way out. She'd set herself up to be the Anna Kournikova of racing, and I always thought of Danica as more the Chris Evert type.

A move to NASCAR wouldn't be about Danica's proving she's one of the best drivers in the world. It would be about maximizing her endorsement opportunities.

No way. I've met Danica Patrick, talked with her face to face shortly after a race, interviewed her for talk shows. I've bought the hype. She's in motor sports for all the right reasons. She's a super competitor, determined to win Indy, hell-bent on proving she's a better driver than most of the boys.

The recent spate of stories about Danica's contemplating a move to NASCAR is nothing more than a negotiating ploy between Patrick and the IRL. She's dumping Rahal-Letterman and letting George know that she won't settle for anything less than a ride with Marlboro Penske or Target Ganassi and a seven-figure contract for next season.

Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if George is orchestrating Patrick's maneuvering. Having the IRL win a Danica sweepstakes wouldn't be a bad piece of publicity for the struggling league. The only thing better would be getting Patrick into the winner's circle, especially the one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She can't do it right now driving for Rahal-Letterman. The team started the 2006 season with the wrong chassis (Panoz), and it's been playing catch-up all year. Danica has been taking the lumps for Rahal's screw-up. With her stuck in the middle of the pack, critics have been teeing off and harping on the fact that she's yet to lead a lap this season. All hype, they say.

Everyone is ignoring that Danica is outperforming her teammate, Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 champion. Driving the same shoddy Rahal-Letterman equipment, Patrick is 12th in IRL points and Rice is 15th.

Danica drives as well as the boys. She just needs the proper equipment.

Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi always have it. My suspicion is that Bobby Rahal is distracted. His 17-year-old son, Graham, is a rising racing star on the Champ Car Atlantic series.

Danica Patrick
Chris Carlson/AP Photo
Danica certainly does dress up well, as she did for this year's ESPYS.

What could be best for the IRL would be for Penske or Ganassi to add a third car (Patrick) to its IRL stable, for Graham Rahal to drive for his father and for 19-year-old Marco Andretti to head up Andretti Green.

What we know for sure is the status quo is unacceptable. Danica can't keep stringing together 10th- and 11th-place finishes. For the IRL to work, for the Indy 500 to recapture its magic, Danica has to race up front. She has to be in position to see the checkered flag.

Racing for Penske would be the safest bet. Penske knows more about winning at Indy than any man or woman on Earth. Teaming Patrick with Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves would give Marlboro Penske the most diverse and talented team since Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker carried the Spurs to the title.

But sending Patrick to Target Ganassi might make more sense. Unlike the buttoned-up, conservative Penske, Ganassi is an outspoken free spirit. He's a maverick who delights in stealing talented drivers. He just put together a deal to lure Juan Pablo Montoya away from Formula One to race in NASCAR. Ganassi took Dan Wheldon from Andretti Green.

Plus, pairing Danica with Target would be a great business move. She could sell all things Danica in Target. I'm not sure what Danica and Argent Mortgage, her current primary sponsor, have in common.

And if Danica switched to Penske or Ganassi, she could dabble on the NASCAR circuit during her free time. She could have the best of both worlds.

A full-time switch to NASCAR would be a disaster right now. She wouldn't win right away. The heavier cars, smaller tires and the loss of aerodynamic grip would be quite an adjustment for her. So would the bumping and rubbing, which she would get a lot of from the don't-need-Danica boys. She'd be more hated by jealous drivers than Dale Jr.

Danica needs to remain the face of open-wheel racing … at least until she's won something.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. He can be reached by e-mail at ballstate68@aol.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.


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