Cup could be right for Danica; it is right for Montoya
You know it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world when Juan Pablo Montoya announces he is switching from Formula One to NASCAR and the word floating out of the Danica Patrick camp is that America's Princess of Speed is thinking about bailing on the IRL IndyCar Series to follow suit.
With Montoya, I can see some method to the madness. His two years racing Champ Cars in America for Chip Ganassi's team were the happiest and most successful of his career, and he and Ganassi have similar character traits that endear them to each other. I don't think JPM ever really enjoyed Formula One, and McLaren was the worst possible match in terms of getting the best out of the fiery Colombian.
It's a masterstroke for NASCAR because it's getting an Hispanic driver who already has an American fan base, not to mention a worldwide following. International interest in NASCAR racing just increased exponentially, and once again, an amazingly simple deal has fallen into Chip Ganassi's lap that makes him look like a visionary genius.
Patrick's situation is a bit more complicated. She's in the final year of a contract with Rahal Letterman Racing, racing in the back half of the field in a series she didn't want to run in the first place. It's an interesting Catch-22 in that Patrick trained as a road racer, yet she has been most successful on speedway-type ovals.
She'd rather be road racing open-wheelers, and short of Formula One -- which is an unrealistic goal -- the best fit for Danica would seem to be the Champ Car World Series. But the downfall of American open-wheel racing over the past decade has devastated the sponsor market and the money to entice her just isn't there.
Ultimately, money is what it's all about, which is why T.J. Patrick, Danica's father and business manager, was hanging around the NASCAR garage area at Chicagoland Speedway over the weekend.
"We're just talking to everybody and seeing what's shaking here," T.J. Patrick told the Chicago Tribune. "I don't know if she's coming around to the idea, but all the arrows point this way."
After initial unhappiness, Patrick came around when team boss Bobby Rahal changed the game plan that had been mapped out and moved her into the mostly oval IRL in 2005. Over the past year and a half, she developed into the IndyCar Series' biggest star through a combination of her looks and charisma coupled with the best performances seen yet from a female driver.
Patrick's star power has carried into mid-2006 despite the fact she has been far less competitive on the track for a variety of reasons. Sensing that her market value is at its peak, Patrick's advisers seem to want to place her in NASCAR right away while stock car racing is still enjoying a boom period.
With Montoya already on board, NASCAR's recruitment of Patrick could be the final knockout punch for Indy-style racing in the United States. The mere fact she is considering leaving should be used as a catalyst to accelerate efforts to solve the open-wheel split.
Could Patrick adapt to stock car racing? Absolutely. She wouldn't have any problems driving the cars, which with power steering and a cushy ride like a Maybach are actually much less physically demanding to drive than an IRL car.
Where I think she would struggle is with the mental grind of racing 38 weekends a year, most of which are spent pounding around unrelentingly similar ovals. And if she's frustrated running 12th in the IRL, imagine the toll that fighting to make the top 20 every week would take on her psyche.
Conversely, I think Montoya will exceed expectations, like he did by winning seven races and the CART title as a rookie in 1999 against a still-strong Champ Car field. He's the most naturally gifted driver I have ever witnessed from trackside, and he's mentally strong enough to endure the inevitable rookie hazing that will come from some Cup regulars. He also adapts to new machinery incredibly quickly, as anyone who watched him dominate the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in an unfamiliar IRL car can attest.
I believe Montoya will have fun in NASCAR, whereas I don't think Patrick would. Maybe somebody should ask her honest opinion before forcing a career move on her that she might regret.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.