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Danica Patrick still hasn't actually told anyone what her plans are for 2010 and beyond, but it's taken as gospel that she will remain an IndyCar Series driver for the next three years. The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that Patrick signed a contract extension to remain with Michael Andretti's team, and Andretti all but confirmed the signing in Curt Cavin's follow-up story.
What does it mean? Mostly that a lot of people in a lot of places -- the Indy Racing League, the league's television partners ABC/ESPN and Versus, the team currently known as Andretti Green Racing, and what's left of open-wheel racing's fan base, to name a few -- can all breathe a big sigh of relief now that Indy car racing's most recognizable star is not leaving for NASCAR.
Although the IndyCar Series can boast of several world-class drivers, including Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and the rapidly emerging Ryan Briscoe, none of them captivate racing fans of all ages like Danica does. As Americans, Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have the potential to build a massive fan base to rival Patrick's, but they'll have to start winning a lot more races for that to happen.
It's ludicrous to think that a driver with one career race win could be so critical to the future of Indy car racing, but that's the power that Danica -- the driver, the business and the brand, by her own description -- holds over America. You can be sure that Jeff Belskus, the man who took over from the ousted Tony George as the leader of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp., is sleeping a bit easier knowing that Patrick will be racing in the Indianapolis 500 for the foreseeable future.
"She's great for our series, an important part of our series, and we hope to see her as a part of it," Belskus said. "I won't sit here and say it's absolutely necessary, but on the other hand, we'd prefer to have her a part of it.
"It's understandable that she's considering all the options available to her, and if I was advising her, I'd suggest the same thing. My hope is that she's going to continue to be an Indy car driver first and foremost. She has said the Indy 500 is important to her and it's a lifelong dream for her to win that event."
The TV partners must be thrilled that they will have Patrick to promote, and re-signing her was no doubt a key part of Michael Andretti's business plan as he moves forward as the sole owner of Andretti Green Racing. The 2009 season is the third out of the last four that AGR has compared poorly to the IRL pacesetters, and the nine wins that Franchitti and Kanaan combined for in 2007 are a distant memory. In fact, the team's victory tally in 2006 and 2008-09 is just four. It remains to be seen whether rebuilding under Andretti's watch will restore the team to the level of competitiveness Patrick will demand.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if Patrick is running third or 13th; people are going to be watching her anyway. The challenge for the IndyCar Series and its partners is to get those people paying attention to Danica Patrick to start caring about the true long-term stars of the sport -- from Andretti, Briscoe and Rahal to Dixon, Kanaan, Castroneves and Franchitti -- to be prepared for the day when Patrick eventually does depart.