It's time. The country's most marketable driver is days away from committing to run in NASCAR full time.
For weeks, reports have circulated that Patrick was contemplating the jump from IndyCar to NASCAR. ESPN, citing multiple sources, reported on Wednesday that Patrick has made her decision and will announce her intentions to run full time in the Nationwide Series, the equivalent of NASCAR's Triple-A minor league level, beginning in 2012. She'll continue to race in the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, her sponsor for her first two part-time years in NASCAR.
More intriguing are reports that she, like many other Nationwide drivers, will run select Sprint Cup races as part of Stewart-Haas Racing. The endgame there would be a full-time Sprint Cup seat for Patrick starting in the 2013 season.
Recently, Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel argued that if Patrick was going to make the jump, she needed to do so "full throttle" — in other words, compete in the biggest races as soon as possible, including the season-starting Daytona 500, where even a win isn't out of the question. (Ask rookie Trevor Bayne, who won this year's race.)
The full-time move to NASCAR could mean the end of Patrick's Indy 500 career, as NASCAR's marquee Coca-Cola 600 runs on the same day and could conflict, timewise, with Patrick's plans to run a full Nationwide schedule. "The Indy 500 runs right in the middle of Charlotte, so, we would definitely want her to contend full time for the championship, and I think she would too," JR Motorsports co-owner Kelly Earnhardt said in addressing this topic in June. "That's something she has to decide. If she's going to come over and run, she's going to do all 35 races, not 34."
Patrick draws considerable criticism from much of the NASCAR fan base for perceived preferential treatment, but the truth is that she's rapidly improving even as she hasn't yet run the equivalent of a full Nationwide season. In six races this year, she's notched three top 10s, led by a fourth-place finish in Las Vegas, and of the five races she's run without a race-ending crash, she's posted finishes no lower than 17th. She's done exactly what her initial backers have hoped: earned her place on the track.
She's also an insanely marketable figure at a time when NASCAR could use some new blood in the fan base and some new cash for the bottom line. Her earnings of $12 million last year place her behind only tennis players Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova among female athletes.
Patrick is expected to make a formal announcement sometime next week.
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