Commentary

Money, seat time made decision easy

Updated: February 10, 2010, 11:20 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If you saw the look of exhilaration when Danica Patrick climbed out of her car after Saturday's ARCA race here, you wouldn't be surprised that she's making her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series at Daytona International Speedway.

If you've watched how far her primary sponsor, GoDaddy.com, pushes shock value in commercials, you wouldn't be surprised she'll make her debut here.

If you understand anything about NASCAR, you definitely wouldn't be surprised.

This was about two things: seat time and money.

You decide which played a bigger role.

Ultimately, you have to believe Patrick when she says the decision to compete in Saturday's Nationwide Series race was hers, that she did it because she felt comfortable. She's the one who has to put her name and reputation -- maybe even safety -- on the line in a field full of Sprint Cup stars, including boss Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But there were a lot of people wanting, even pushing, for this to happen. Do you really think GoDaddy.com, which had the IndyCar Series driver strip down for a shower in one Super Bowl commercial and carry a live beaver in her lap for another, would miss an opportunity to put its star on NASCAR's biggest Nationwide stage?

Do you really think NASCAR -- which is making countless changes to the Sprint Cup car and its policy on policing drivers to spike interest in the sport -- would miss an opportunity to showcase someone who drew more fan attention this past weekend than its most popular driver?

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
AP Photo/David GrahamDanica Patrick and her crew looked sharp in Saturday's ARCA race.

Do you really think DIS, which likely won't sell out the Daytona 500 and has eliminated a portion of the backstretch grandstands since last season, would miss an opportunity to put more fannies in the seats?

Do you think Danica's marketing company in charge of souvenir sales would miss an opportunity for promotion that may be as big as the Daytona 500 itself?

Hardly.

On Saturday, Patrick was the No. 1 trending topic on Yahoo.

And if there were any doubts, they should have been erased after the ARCA race when crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who initially was against throwing Patrick into the Daytona Nationwide fire, said he was for it.

You can't beat on-the-job training.

You also can't beat the exposure NASCAR will get from this. And it's free, unlike the $2.5 million to $2.8 million that advertisers paid for a 30-second commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl.

Mark Martin, whose Cup sponsor is GoDaddy.com, put it best after taking the pole for the Daytona 500.

"I would say if she ran that lap in that car, it would be a bigger story," he said.

And Martin is a pretty big story himself, becoming at 51 the oldest driver to win a Daytona 500 pole.

Seat time and money. That's what this is all about.

"You can hear the collective applause from our ticket office," DIS president Robin Braig said. "Our phone lines lit up this morning. This is fabulous news for us in a tough economic time."

Braig doesn't hide the fact that he was pushing Patrick to make her Nationwide debut here. He can't hide the excitement of having People magazine and "Entertainment Tonight" now interested in his event.

"The Danica effect has been wonderful," Braig said. "Not only for this past weekend, but now we have a full week of Danica news. It's very important to this industry to have great marketing representation. Man, she's one of them."

Braig expects ticket sales to jump at least 10 percent. He's already ordered more Danica T-shirts and other merchandise.

"It's huge," he said. "A real windfall for us."

The Danica effect has been wonderful. Not only for this past weekend, but now we have a full week of Danica news. It's very important to this industry to have great marketing representation. Man, she's one of them.

-- Daytona president Robin Braig

Many in the garage believe Patrick is making a mistake. Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's Cup crew chief, said before the Shootout he wouldn't consider the Nationwide race because there are so many Cup drivers in the field.

ESPN analysts Dale Jarrett and Ricky Craven, who know a thing or two about driving at Daytona, said the same thing while watching the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Let her leave Daytona feeling good about what she did in the ARCA race, they said, because there's little chance she can succeed to that level in the Nationwide event. Let her debut at California, where there are fewer stars and the racing is going to be more like what she'll see the rest of the season.

My response to them? So what.

Who cares if Patrick doesn't finish in the top 10 against the likes of Earnhardt, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch? Who cares if she doesn't finish in the top 30?

If she crashes and finishes last, it won't be the end of the world. You can't lose when there aren't any realistic expectations.

This is win-win.

Patrick wins because she gains experience around some of the best drivers in the world. Even though the racing will be different at California, she'll have an idea of what to expect.

The Nationwide race also is a much safer proposition than the ARCA wreckfest where Patrick was on the track with drivers of far less experience.

GoDaddy.com, NASCAR and DIS will win because of the exposure. Even ESPN will win because there will be more than the normal number of viewers for the broadcast on ESPN2 (1 p.m. ET).

The only loser in this is Kelly Bires, who won't get to drive because JR Motorsports can't afford to put Earnhardt, Patrick and him into the race. Again, so what? It's not as if Bires was going to compete for the championship with Edwards and other more experienced drivers running a full Nationwide schedule.

And it's not as if GoDaddy.com was going to step up and sponsor him in the race if Patrick didn't compete.

So is anybody really surprised by this announcement? You shouldn't be. Patrick said in December there was a 50-50 chance she would run this race. Others close to her said the percentage was much higher.

Seat time and money.

It makes sense from every angle, and it really doesn't matter which played the bigger role.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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