Danica has to go full throttle into NASCAR

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Danica has to go full throttle into NASCAR
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Danica Patrick teamed up with Justin Bieber at this year's ESPY awards

The Associated Press is reporting Danica Patrick is in the final stages of moving full time to NASCAR next season. The move would include select races at the top-level Sprint Cup Series where she'd go head-to-head with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and the rest.

If so, then there is an obvious choice for her first start.

The Daytona 500.

Biggest race, biggest stage and, if you can believe it, the best opportunity for her to run up front or even (gasp) win.

Seriously.

Danica has made her name – and her millions – on the image of being America's take-no-prisoners, high-speed temptress. It netted her $12 million last year according to Forbes, third-most of any female athlete behind only tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki.

Here's her chance to prove it's more than a marketing plan. If you're going to roll the dice on the Sprint Cup, why sit out the main event?

Danica has never been much for off-Broadway. Cameras, she likes. Attention, she likes. No sense in saving her big moment for Dover.

No, she wouldn't be the favorite at Daytona. Yes, she's won just one race at all (way back in 2008, in the open wheel IndyCar Series). And, of course, she isn't getting handed this opportunity if she didn't wear a fire suit so well. Deal with it.

[Photos: More images of racing star Danica Patrick]

Daytona is the perfect comfort zone for her, both in the media spotlight and behind the wheel.

Danica isn't a complete enough driver to challenge for a Sprint Cup championship. She'd be non-competitive over the long haul of a season, which is why she'll focus most of her energies on the triple-A Nationwide Series, as up-and-coming drivers generally do.

What Danica has shown, however, is an ability to compete at a high level at super speedways, such as Daytona's 2.5-mile tri-oval. She's especially strong in the current tandem style of racing, where drivers team up and take turns pushing each other around the mammoth track.

In July's Nationwide race at Daytona, Patrick led 13 of the 100 laps and was in front with just two to go. She spent most of the race teamed up with no less than Tony Stewart, who will reportedly be the one fielding her a car in a handful of races next season. In the end, she and JR Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola got passed. Then she got into a major wreck as she crossed the finish line in 10th place. Even that was impressive, though.

"Kept my foot in it," she told ESPN after the race. "I know that's probably not the right thing to do when there's a crash. You know, I was going for broke."

Actually never-letting-up, pedal-to-the-metal right through a wreck is a sign of her growing confidence.

[Related: Danica Patrick's potential move raises questions]

You can brush off that finish as just the Nationwide Series, but the field was full of Cup drivers – Stewart, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, etc.

And you can say the Daytona 500 is a whole different beast, but February's race was won by Trevor Bayne, a 20-year-old making his first 500 start who was so green he missed the turn to victory lane.

"Am I dreaming right now," Bayne screamed to his crew.

NASCAR can only dream of what the ratings would be with Patrick in contention late in what is already its most-watched, most-hyped, most-important race. Even if she wouldn't be breaking any gender barrier – a number of women have raced the Daytona 500, the last was Shawna Robinson in 2002 – Danica in Daytona would bring a whole other stratosphere of hype.

While the winner's circle has mostly eluded Patrick, even her toughest critic must concede she's never shied away from the big risk: in commercials, bikini spreads and behind the wheel of a car going 200 mph.

Patrick grew up in the Midwest as an open-wheel driver and, as such, treasures the Indianapolis 500. Her fourth-place finish there in 2005 catapulted her career. She may make a special provision in her NASCAR deal to still drive it. The Associated Press report indicates she could still run the Indy 500 even if she moves full time to NASCAR.

But she also knows that even the Indy 500 has been eclipsed in American racing. That's why she's spent a season and a half trying to learn how to drive a stock car.

Critics claim she's little more than a marketing gimmick, but while business is undoubtedly a concern, this is a dual-purpose move for her. She wants to prove herself against the best while garnering the most attention. It's both, not just one.

Yes, she can earn more money in NASCAR, but there was plenty of money – 12 million bucks just last year – in the comfort zone of the IRL. She doesn't need to risk failure to be impossibly wealthy.

She wants it as a competitor. She covets credibility. It's not like she's currently getting much out of driving part time in a second-tier circuit. Except the experience to maybe one-day make a Sprint Cup splash.

"She's way ahead of the curve," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., teammate and part owner of her NASCAR ride. "We started out struggling and she had a steep, steep climb to go and she's really come a long way. I'm excited about what the potential is with her.”

The potential to, as Patrick would say, you know, go for broke.

No more easing in. No more taking her time. If she's going to announce she's ready for full-time NASCAR, if she's going to say she's ready to race Jimmie Johnson and the others, then do it on the biggest stage with the biggest (and possibly most attainable) upside imaginable.

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