From the Marbles - NASCAR

So NASCAR has become hockey. Actually, that's not fair to the NHL. At least no one's trying to take away its sticks.

Auto icon General Motors, mired in its own economic hell, announced recently that it would cut funding at all levels of NASCAR, forcing key teams, including Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide team, to trim their budgets and, like the rest of us, make do with less.

NASCAR was sputtering long before GM's woes made its recent cutback inevitable. Earlier this year, Chrysler, just out of bankruptcy, sliced its funding of Dodge teams, which forced Richard Petty Motorsports to lay off nine employees a few days ago. At the end of last season, more than 1,000 team members were laid off. Ford is spending less on racing, as well.

Like the market, what was once the "fastest-growing sport in America" has pretty much lost all its heyday gains. No wonder NASCAR is all in a lather over prospects that open-wheel driver Danica Patrick would be "open" to jumping to stock cars when her three-year contract ends at the end of the IndyCar season in October.

Patrick may be the second-biggest star in auto racing. But like No. 1 – Earnhardt – her star status has less to do with her skills behind the wheel than her, uh, other assets. Much has been made of the fact that she has not won a race in the U.S., but she stands fifth in IndyCar Series points. Clearly, she can race.

One of the top NASCAR teams should do all it can to sign Patrick, and place her in a full-time Sprint Cup car. It's the only way she'll jump to stock after seeing some of her former open-wheel colleagues struggle on NASCAR teams with limited resources.

Patrick would be a spark to NASCAR. She knows it. NASCAR so knows it.

But if the sport thinks the diminutive driver will get it back on track, well, that's wrong-headed. Danica Patrick isn't NASCAR's savior, not even if she drives in a swimsuit.

Her presence in open-wheel racing shed new light on a sport that was pretty much known for one race – the Indy 500 – before she came along. But how many other races can you name? How often have you tuned in to watch Patrick race?

Like the rest of us, NASCAR has to figure out how to save itself. It must solidify its core fan base by recognizing their pain and making races more affordable. After years of chasing Madison Ave., it must return to Main Street.

Danica Patrick's arrival will be a start but not enough to reach the checkered flag.

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