Danica Patrick is used to being recognized, so when she's pulled over by a female police officer in the latest Go Daddy ad, she readies herself to talk about her day job as an Indy Car driver.
Danica Patrick is in the last year of her IRL contract with Andretti Green Racing.
"Hey, I know you," the female police officer says, only she doesn't recognize Patrick as a race car driver. "You're that Go Daddy girl."
It's meant only to be a joke, except that there's a lot of truth to it.
Danica is arguably more famous for being Danica than she is for being a race car driver, hence why, if you listen to her, her next move will be more about brand management than about racing.
Amidst reports that she's in talks about a possible move from the IRL to NASCAR, Patrick was asked Tuesday if she's had contact with any NASCAR teams.
"I'm not sure," she said. "That's not for me to handle. That's what I leave up to my agents, and as they tell me, which is the best thing, is that all I have to do is go out there and perform and they'll take care of the rest, so that's what I'm gonna do."
Notice that Patrick isn't telling her agents where she'd rather race, but rather waiting for them to tell her what her options are. And there will be plenty.
In February, Patrick signed with IMG, the massive brand management firm that has represented the likes of Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and Jeff Gordon. The change in representation came a month before Patrick entered the final year of her contract with the IRL's Andretti Green Racing.
Coincidence? Probably not.
Either way, it's clear through Patrick's own choice of words that her move to IMG is about more than just pitting one race series against the other in a bidding war for her services. Whenever she's asked about her future plans, Patrick inevitably talks about managing her "brand," a word she used seven times on Tuesday. More than once, she used the phrase, "As a driver and as a brand."
Now it's IMG's charge to figure out how to maximize the potential of both.
Undoubtedly, making the move to NASCAR would provide an initial boost to Patrick's already high profile. On average, around 10 million households a week have tuned in this season to watch NASCAR races, broadcast predominantly on network television, while the IRL has vanished from the top of the dial, relegated to Versus, where the viewing audience has topped out around 450,000 households.
Based on eyeballs alone, Patrick's next move is an obvious one.
But what if she can't cut it driving stock cars?
Even in the low-profile IRL, Patrick, who is having the best season of her career sitting fifth in the standings, has built herself a sizable endorsement portfolio. Would running 30th every week be a drag on her marketability? And even if it was, would the point of diminishing returns still favor NASCAR over the IRL?
Patrick isn't oblivious to the tried and not-so-successful attempts of the three open-wheel drivers who recently made the switch to NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti – all Indianapolis 500 winners – found the transition difficult, with Franchitti lasting only a handful of races before running back to the IRL. After two-plus seasons, Montoya is finally having some moderate success, while two years into his NASCAR tenure, Hornish, a three-time IRL series champion, is still trying to find his way.
With only one career win to her name, Patrick's résumé doesn't even touch those of Montoya, Hornish or Franchitti. But she counters by pointing out that none of them were or are driving for one of NASCAR's top-tier teams, a requirement on which she would insist.
"How can you really hold them accountable for not doing extremely well in the very beginning when they just don't have the resources?" she asked.
If the report linking Patrick to Chip Ganassi, who owns a dominating IRL team and a struggling NASCAR Cup team, is true, her words would presumably rule out a move to NASCAR in 2010 considering Montoya drives for Ganassi's Cup team.
"I think the most important thing for me is to put myself in a situation where I can win as many races as possible and run up front and be in that competitive situation," she said. "That's the most important thing."
But just when you think she's all about the racing, she says this: "At the end of the day, usually the best press comes when I'm doing things on track. That's really the most important thing for me as a driver. So that's where the ultimate focus is going to go."
Good press, that's where the focus is, because while she wants to win, she's come to realize, thanks in part to Go Daddy girl wanna-bes, that her most saleable commodity isn't her racing acumen. It's being her.