Patrick takes gutsy drive down NASCAR road

It's easy to say Danica Patrick will fail in NASCAR, because odds are she will. That is why she deserves credit for trying.

On Tuesday, Patrick, the wonder woman of the Indy Racing League and her sponsor's "racy" spokeswoman, formally announced what has been speculated about ever since she burst on the motor sports scene after finishing fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 – she will give NASCAR a try.

Danica Patrick will be under a lot of scrutiny before and after she puts on a helmet for her first NASCAR race.
(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It's a bold move considering where Patrick sits now – the unquestioned face of a sport who commands the attention of sponsors ranging from a domain name registration website to a private jet service provider. Where she is now, she's making millions, placed atop a high pedestal with no one in sight to knock her off.

That is what makes this move so gutsy.

If she were broke with no other opportunities on the horizon, making the switch would be a no-brainer. But because she's already loaded, Patrick actually has something to lose. Monetarily, she's putting her brand in jeopardy. Career wise, she's going from a top-five driver to toiling in the minor leagues.

That's right, Patrick isn't going straight to NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series to compete against Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. No, she'll start in the ARCA Series, known best for its copious wrecks and anonymity. From there, she'll try to earn a license that will allow her to compete in the Nationwide Series – NASCAR's Triple-A – beginning in February at Daytona.

If there's big money to be made driving in NASCAR's minor leagues, Patrick, who has reportedly signed with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team, will be the only one earning it. Her bonus – the one making it worth her while to abandon her comfort zone – won't come until she makes it to the Cup Series, assuming she gets there, because the path from the IRL to Cup is littered with the road kill of her contemporaries.

Neither Sam Hornish Jr. nor Dario Franchitti – both Indy 500 winners, both better than Patrick – could or has managed any success in NASCAR. It took Juan Pablo Montoya, widely considered one of the premier drivers in the world and an Indy 500 winner as well, three seasons before he was competitive in the Cup Series and he's yet to win on an oval.

Success in the Cup Series, if it ever comes, isn't around the corner for Patrick. She'll need at least a year in the minors – she's expected to race a part-time Nationwide schedule in 2010 – though probably two before she's ready for Cup. When she finally does get there, she's looking at least three seasons before she's even competitive, and that's only if she follows the same learning curve as Montoya.

Of course, this assumes she cares about such things as being competitive, which you have to believe she does. Any woman who gets to where Patrick has in her chosen profession has to want it pretty bad.

"It's come up in the past to run NASCAR … [but I] didn't want to at all," Patrick said last month. "I wasn't really curious. And trust me, there were financial reasons why it would have been a much better idea. So that takes that out of the equation.

"I've always thought that the most important thing for me in my career is that I go with my gut and I go with what I want and not worry about the rest. And so now my curiosity is there and I'd like to just try it, and I'd like to see how I get on with the cars. I just think the racing looks fun."

From now until she proves herself on the field of play, there will be critics who question her motivation, mostly, of course, because she's a she. In one sense, it's not fair. She's good at what she does regardless of which bathroom she uses. But a big part of what she's become is because she has the bathroom at work all to herself. Dale Earnhardt Jr. faces a similar hurdle. It's not to say they don't deserve their opportunity, but rather that they have to do a little more to prove they've earned it.

Patrick may never do that. She may never be as good as some people expect her to be in order to match their own expectations. But one thing those same critics can't ever say is that she was afraid to fail.