Danica’s calculated risk has impeccable timing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sam Hornish Jr. could have stayed right where he was and been a legend. Instead, he left the IRL for NASCAR, where he’s become a punching bag.

“The guy I wouldn’t want to learn from would be Sam Hornish,” four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Thursday. “He hits way too much stuff, including me.”

So why, besides money of course, did Hornish flee the friendly confines of open-wheel racing, where he’d won three titles and 19 races, including the Indy 500, for an uncertain future in stock car racing?

“Well, if I was a really good college football player and I decided to quit after college, what would you think about me?” Hornish explained. “You would say, ‘Oh, the guy didn’t think he could make it over there.’  ”

So is the IRL college and NASCAR the pros? In a way, yes.

As Hornish explained it, there are IRL drivers who are just as talented as NASCAR’s best, “but instead of five guys who are that talented, you have 30 guys who are that talented [in NASCAR].”

This is the hornets nest Hornish has thrown himself into and the one Danica Patrick is considering. Saturday, she will make her stock car debut in an ARCA series race – stock car racing’s equivalent to Single-A baseball – at Daytona International Speedway. After that, she’s off to Triple-A ball in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series.

The assumption is that she will eventually make her way to the big leagues, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. But given her mediocre résumé in the IRL and how difficult the transition has been for other more accomplished IRL drivers, is her move to the Cup Series imminent?

The answer is no, not if she thinks she’ll end up being a punching bag like Hornish. She’s made this abundantly clear by the deft way she’s handled herself. Patrick has set the bar low, has avoided making any proclamations and insists that she’s making the move for on-track purposes only, not her brand.

But maybe her smartest move is in her timing.

In 2006, when rumors of her potential move to NASCAR first started popping up, no one had attempted the switch – at least not in recent years – so no one knew what reasonable expectations were. As in anything, when you’re the pioneer, you’re going to take your lumps. Juan Pablo Montoya did when he was the first to make the move from open wheel to stock cars in 2007. Hornish, who made the switch a year later, still is. And Dario Franchitti got beat up so badly he threw in the towel just 10 races into the 2008 season.

Today, having witnessed the struggles of three Indy 500 winners, expectations for those making the move from IRL to NASCAR are tempered. Whereas failure was once measured by wins and losses, that’s no longer the case. Now, failure is determined by not trying at all.

Don’t for a second think this hasn’t played into Patrick’s decision to make the move now.

“It just shows everybody a true perspective that they need to have on new drivers in the series and how difficult it is,” Patrick said. “I feel kind of lucky that I’m coming at a time where we all have a more realistic perspective of the learning curve.”

Those who are offering an opinion – who aren’t taking the wait-and-see approach – think the learning curve for Patrick will be as steep if not steeper than for the ones who’ve tried making the switch before her. Montoya has stated the difficulty for her will be exacerbated because she’s making the transition while still competing full-time in the IRL. Hornish said he and Franchitti talked about this exact thing, and both agree with Montoya.

“When [Dario] came over [from IRL to NASCAR], he told me, ‘Man, I can’t believe how hard it would be to have to juggle both of them back and forth. It’s like, there’s enough difference between the Nationwide car and the Cup car that it’s hard to understand where you’re at.’ ” Hornish recalled. “I never really thought about it until he said that to me. But thinking about it now, it’s not the way I would do it.”

For Patrick, it’s just another hedge of the bet. If she never leaves the IRL, then she never has to go “back” if the NASCAR experiment doesn’t work out. It may not be the way Hornish would do it, but Patrick’s goal is to avoid punches, not take them.

Jay Hart is a Senior Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jay a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 5, 2010