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For Danica, NASCAR doesn't make sense

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

You probably didn't watch. You probably didn't hear a word about it.

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Danica Patrick's star power hasn't been enough to lift the IRL from obscurity.
(AP)

Lost in a maze of baseball and football, the Indy Racing League saw its championship go down to the dramatic wire Saturday in a first-ever caution-free race. Not one wreck. Not one debris stoppage. It was just 300 miles of full-throttle, breakneck racing around Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The winner averaged 201.4 miles per hour. Strategies had to change on the fly. Leads were swapped. Nerves and gas mileage tested. The race was done in a crisp, viewer-friendly 90 or so minutes. Then, in the final 10 laps, three drivers dueled not just for the checkered flag but for the championship of the entire season.

Dario Franchitti came from third to win both, which meant plenty of camera time for his wife, a sundress-clad Ashley Judd.

This was the racing equivalent of a high-scoring, back-and-forth, overtime Super Bowl.

Yet, you probably didn't watch. You probably didn't hear a word about it.

This is the state of the IRL.

It's considered the prime reason why Danica Patrick is considering making a full or at least part-time move to NASCAR. She brushed off questions about her pending decision all weekend.

It actually should be a sign to NASCAR that, as enticing as adding a media spark such as Patrick to its sluggish circuit, her appeal is fleeting.

Even with Danica Patrick, her magazine layouts and commercial campaigns, the IRL is playing to empty grandstands and on anonymous broadcasts. Why would her impact be any different for NASCAR?

"I don't think she's important to the future of our sport," Rick Hendrick, NASCAR's top team owner, said matter-of-factly Sunday. "I don't think that's going to make any difference where NASCAR is."

Hendrick may be the lone voice of reason in NASCAR as team after team lines up to sign her. Kelley Earnhardt is recruiting Danica for her brother Dale's Nationwide team. Tony Stewart's reportedly interested in her services. So is Michael Waltrip.

They see the potential. They sense the profits. Yet, they're overestimating both.

Without winning races – Danica has just one career IRL victory – and without racing for a championship, her draw remains unnoticeable. Fans aren't filling the seats, viewers aren't tuning in and the media still stops paying attention to the IRL once the checkered flag flies on the Indy 500.

She can sell a magazine, but not an entire circuit. If she could, you would've known all about the IRL race on Saturday.

Danica needs to win to remain relevant. That's it. That's all.

After four full IRL seasons, she's talented and comfortable enough to consistently compete for victories next year. Her fifth-place finish in 2009, despite Andretti Green Racing's epic struggles, proves her ability.

Stock car racing is a completely different animal, though, and there is no substitute for seasoning. Danica has none.

She isn't going to win in NASCAR anytime soon; certainly not at the Sprint Cup level.

The road from IRL to NASCAR is littered with drivers with far more open-wheel success and stock car experience than Patrick. It took current Cup contender Juan Pablo Montoya, an Indy 500 winner and a star in Formula One, three seasons to get comfortable in NASCAR.

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Dario Franchitti won the IRL title Saturday with little fanfare.
(Getty)

Franchitti won the IRL title in 2007, then lasted only 10 races in NASCAR in 2008 before retreating to IRL, where he won back his title. He isn't returning to NASCAR.

"I'm absolutely where I should be," Franchitti said.

It would be one thing if Danica could slide right into contention in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR's highest level. No one thinks this is possible, though.

She's destined for a couple years concentrating on low-profile truck races and the low-profit Nationwide Series. If anyone put her in a Sprint Cup ride, they'd be asking for a season of frustration.

"You can't just show up in the Cup Series and go," three-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson said. "It's just two totally different worlds."

Visions of Danica at Daytona in February, roaring down the back stretch trading paint with Johnson and Stewart are a pipe dream. Any initial splash of attention and fanfare would fade quickly. Trying to learn stock cars part-time, as Patrick has been offered, is a recipe for disaster, according to Montoya. He says the only way to succeed is complete commitment.

Patrick turns 28 in March, and it's no time to start again. There's no questioning her competitive fire, but she needs to appreciate the chance to grasp glory right in front of her. With Michael Andretti re-assuming full control over his IRL team, her best chance at a championship is right where she is.

It was once believed she needed NASCAR to maximize her star power. Now it appears NASCAR, whose fortunes continue to slide, needs her more than she needs it.

Not even Johnson's quest for a record fourth consecutive Cup title, challenged by big-name drivers Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Montoya and Stewart, has helped. You can understand why NASCAR is desperate for a shot in the arm. Just having a celebrity driver isn't enough, though.

If it was, the IRL would be thriving. Its product is top-notch. Its races are almost always exciting. This is the second time in three years the championship was decided in the last laps of the last race. It doesn't require our instant-everything culture to sit through four- or five-hour broadcasts.

Yet it continues to fade from relevance.

Not even Danica in a fire suit has been enough. It has to be Danica in victory lane. It has to be about the substance. It has to be about the entire circuit finding a better marketing plan than "check out our swimsuit model."

That moment is gone. Now it's about winning. Anything less is eventually doomed for disappointment.

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