Patrick signs with JR Motorsports
IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick admittedly is nervous about making the jump to NASCAR, but believes JR Motorsports puts her in the best possible situation to succeed.
"First and foremost, I'm going to drive for a great team," Patrick said on Tuesday after announcing she has a two-year deal to drive the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Nationwide Series car for JRM. "There is adequate and proper support. And as I do get nervous before anything I do, I do believe in myself. That's important."
Patrick will begin her quest to make the transition from open wheel cars to stock cars at an ARCA Series test at Daytona International Speedway on Dec. 18-20. It is an experiment that NASCAR welcomes because of the intense attention the 27-year-old driver will bring to the male-dominated sport.
It is a decision that some have been skeptical of since Patrick made public her intentions months ago.
"She should stay where she is," Janet Guthrie, the first woman to reach the top level of open wheel racing and NASCAR in the 1970s, told the New York Times earlier this year. "She is in the best possible situation in the IRL, in the catbird seat with one of the few teams [Andretti Autosport] that is capable of winning."
Regardless, Patrick is excited about the new venture that will have her in about a dozen Nationwide races -- likely the first three before the IndyCar schedule, the last six after that season and a few in between -- in fields that will include many of the top Sprint Cup drivers.
"I'm going to be racing against some very competitive drivers, that' s a fact," Patrick said during a conference call from Phoenix where the announcement was made. "My thoughts on that, it's going to be a good teaching mechanism.
"[If] I end up in Cup one day, I need to learn to race against those guys. I'm excited about that. It's an opportunity to show what I've got."
Patrick's ultimate goal if she succeeds in Nationwide appears to be a career in Cup. She has a three-year deal with Andretti in IndyCar, but the third year is an option.
There has been speculation that Patrick might be a future replacement for 50-year-old Mark Martin in the No. 5 sponsored by GoDaddy.com at Hendrick Motorsports. Martin's contract expires in 2011.
Bob Parsons, the CEO and founder of GoDaddy.com, didn't rule out a Patrick for Martin switch.
"Just to think about that makes my eyes twinkle," he said. "I can tell you that is the sort of thing we would have to take a look at when we got to that point. Yeah, it's a possibility."
Said Patrick, "We'll cross that bridge when it comes. It would be nice to do well enough to have that opportunity."
But for now the focus is Daytona. The plan is to enter Patrick in the ARCA opener in February at DIS and get approval by NASCAR for the Nationwide opener.
Her crew chief will be Tony Eury Jr., the former Cup crew chief for JRM co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The GoDaddy.com sponsorship will be on the JRM car only for the races in which Patrick drives. JRM officials continue to look for sponsorship for the No. 88 that will be driven by Kelly Bires and any remaining races for the second car.
Earnhardt is expected to drive in 2-4 Nationwide races.
Kelley Earnhardt, who co-owns JRM with her brother and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, was "thrilled" to bring a woman into the sport.
"We're going to have a lot of fun," said Kelley, who recently was named a co-owner of the team.
Patrick will bring much-needed publicity to a sport with sagging attendance and television ratings. According to the Davie Brown Index that measures a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent Patrick ranks tied for third in NASCAR with seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty behind Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. In terms of appeal -- or consumer likeability -- she ranks second only to Petty.
Patrick's biggest challenge will be on the track.
"Danica, I think she's got the talent and everything but I don't think she knows what she's getting into," Juan Pablo Montoya said in September.
Montoya understands the difficulties of the transition better than most. The former Indianapolis 500 champion left Formula One three years ago to pursue a career in the Sprint Cup series.
A driver with far better credentials than Patrick, who has one win and has finished no better than fifth in points, Montoya ranked 20th in points as a Cup rookie and 25th a year ago before making the Chase this season. He still hasn't won on an oval track.
"They're so different to drive," said Montoya, explaining the difference between a stock car and Indy car. "It's not the same feeling."
Montoya said trying to compete in IndyCar and the Nationwide Series at the same time will make the transition even more difficult.
"I wouldn't be doing both cars, to be honest with you," he said. "That's my advice."
Team owner Jack Roush agreed, telling reporters last month if Patrick wants to come to NASCAR she should do it "with all her heart and soul and commitment," not on a part-time basis.
Others suggest patience will be the key to whether Patrick succeeds or not.
"It will take time no matter how good someone is," Carl Edwards recently said. "Coming from another discipline to this, that's a huge step."
Patrick understands the concerns, but she isn't deterred. She jokingly suggested having a few Hendrick cars bump her around "to see what it's like."
Patrick isn't intimidated. Although she plans to show complete respect to all the drivers and not come in with an attitude that she knows everything, she expects to be treated fairly.
"Look, I'm the new kid on this campus," she said. "I will respect them completely, all of them. If they don't play fair, we'll address it as needed."
Patrick's edgy attitude won't change and neither will the GoDaddy.com marketing behind her even though Earnhardt suggested late this season she might need to tone that down.
Parsons referred to two Super Bowl ads that will be released the day after Patrick makes her ARCA debut on Feb. 6. He wouldn't reveal details, but assured "you won't be disappointed."
GoDaddy.com and its existing relationship with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports was a big reason Patrick signed with JRM after being courted by a handful of other teams.
That JRM has one of the top Nationwide programs sealed it.
"We've all been working very hard for some time to bring this all together," Patrick said. "There's so much relief there. I'm starting to get a little nervous. It's time to do my part and get in these cars and perform.
"It's no doubt it's going to be challenging, but we're really excited to get moving on it."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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