The Indianapolis 500 is Sunday and we know this because we've been treated to a month of questions to Danica Patrick about when she's going to give NASCAR a try.
It's a sign of how far general interest in open-wheel racing, not to mention its signature event, has fallen. The hard-core fans will still turn out and tune in this weekend, but it's saying something when the most asked question is about the future of a driver who isn't even a favorite to win the race.
Jimmie Johnson has heard the questions and Patrick's open-ended answers about the possibility of a jump. As NASCAR's Sprint Cup champion three years running, Johnson's advice to a potential opponent is pretty simple.
Come on over, although not until you're ready. And, trust me, you're not ready.
His suggestion is for Patrick to re-sign with the Indy Racing League and spend her free time driving on minor league stock car circuits so she can learn to handle the vastly different machine. It's not her lack of talent, he says, it's her lack of experience.
"If she's serious about doing it, she needs to spend a year or two, while racing IRL, running ARCA, running trucks, running Nationwide and really understanding the difference in the vehicles," Johnson told Yahoo! Sports last week.
"Otherwise, she's going to be put in a tough situation. … You can't just show up in the Cup Series and go."
That probably isn't what Patrick wants to hear because such a transition makes little business sense and, if nothing else, Danica is about business. Patrick is a major-league star, and potentially failing in the minors isn't worth the risk to her highly profitable image.
Besides, she didn't crash the male-dominated world of racing by being demure – she may be a woman, but she also may be the toughest personality in Indy this weekend. Patience and Patrick don't necessarily mix.
Danica is in the last year of her contract with Andretti-Green and could conceivably leave the IRL at season's end. She's probably just using NASCAR as a bargaining chip, but then again, you should never doubt her self-confidence.
"I don't think there's any way to guarantee anything at this point," Patrick told Yahoo! Sports earlier this month. "I think that's something that I'll evaluate when the ideas and opportunities present themselves. I will evaluate all my options when the time comes."
And she'll also considers the potential pratfalls ahead, and Johnson said they are numerous. While anyone expressing caution to Patrick is often dismissed as a mindless critic or even a sexist, Johnson is neither.
He wants her to not just come to NASCAR, but to succeed in it. He isn't naïve to the financial windfall of having her in the circuit.
"For our sport, I'd love to see it," he said. "This is where I make a living; this is the sport I love and whatever we can do to make our sport stronger I'm in favor of."
He just cautions that the move isn't as simple as Patrick wanting to do it. She wouldn't be the first open-wheel driver to try NASCAR, and the track record isn't strong. Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti all had better open-wheel careers than Patrick, only to experience mixed results in NASCAR.
"They just need time," Johnson said. "They have worked their entire lives to learn an open-wheel vehicle, the characteristics of that, the adjustments. It's just two totally different worlds.
"In a lot of respects, it would be easier to go from stock cars to IRL. The vehicle is the limit in our cars. In a lot of respects, in open-wheel cars, it's the bravery of the driver. The car has so much grip, it sticks, you just have to keep pushing yourself.
"You take that mentality and then put it in a stock car that has 60 percent less grip and down force – it's like going from driving a sports car to a Suburban. It just takes awhile to get that."
Patrick has dismissed other open-wheel drivers' troubles on their inability to get in with a top NASCAR team, something Johnson agrees is a factor, but not the chief one.
She thinks she could hook on with a team that can make her an immediate winner. Johnson can't imagine where that is, though.
"Granted it would be a money-making opportunity," he said, "but it's just tough to roll the dice on someone that has no experience in stock car racing.
"Now, if she was serious about it and ran two years in Nationwide program and she showed promise, then a team would then buy in and say, 'You know, she's going to be a rookie, we're going to tear up some cars, but our eggs are in this basket for the long haul and this is going to work.' "
He compared it to Joe Gibbs investing in Joey Logano, the 18-year-old rookie phenom who made the jump to Cup racing a year before he was ready. The difference is Logano had extensive experience in stock cars before making the jump. Patrick doesn't.
Danica doesn't sound deterred, though. She eyes NASCAR because it's the major racing platform in the United States and, if nothing else, she's a major-league kind of person. She loves attention, and NASCAR would provide it. Heck, just batting her eyes at NASCAR provides attention.
Besides, how long does she really want to hang around a racing league that can't create any buzz other than her latest magazine layout?
At some point she has to stop answering reporters' questions about making the leap and instead answer her own. Not just whether she wants it, but how much she's willing to sacrifice to do it. Can she wait? Can she work? Can she risk failure in the minors?
She rightfully notes that her first NASCAR race would be the most watched in history. Which is true; the initial attention would be incredible.
But how long would that last?
- Danica Patrick