MOORESVILLE, NC - DECEMBER 17: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet speaks at JR Motorsports on December 17, 2009 in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)
Not everybody believes this, but Danica Patrick can drive. Well. And very fast.
She has won an Indy Car race and last season finished fifth on the Indy Car circuit, the highest ranked American driver. She seems to like Southern California, finishing an impressive fourth at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach last year despite starting way back in the pack.
Now she wants to take on NASCAR. And she is starting here in Southern California.
Patrick will make her debut in the Nationwide Series — the AAA minor leagues of NASCAR — at the California Motor Speedway in Fontana on Feb. 20. She will be driving a Chevrolet sponsored by JR Motorsports, the NASCAR team tied to the sport’s most popular star, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick will race NASCAR for a few weeks before returning to Indy Car, where she recently signed a new three-year deal with Andretti Autosport. Then she will return to NASCAR after the IndyCar season.
NASCAR is big, but it has few if any crossover stars, names or faces that the casual sports fan knows. How many people would realize if Junior Johnson walked by them on the street.
Patrick already is a crossover star. She has Super Bowl commercials and endorsements that few in NASCAR can rival. She has a face and name that could grow the sport among women. More importantly, she could boost ratings and draw more people to the gate. There was a reason so many NASCAR big wigs were at her press conference this week.
But Patrick has a lot of work in front of her.
Dario Franchitti (that would be Mr. Ashley Judd to you) is one of the few drivers to race both NASCAR and Indy Car (Juan Montoya is another, and he started to have some success on the NASCAR circuit last year). Franchitti said that the two different types of cars — open wheel versus stock car — mean totally different types of driving. He called them almost different sports.
Indy Cars are more physically demanding and take more training, but NASCAR requires more mental endurance, Franchitti said. He had a hard time comparing the two styles of racing, saying that while the basics of driving are the same they are about as much alike as beach and indoor volleyball in how the game is played.
Patrick can drive — her success is not an accident. But if she can drive NASCAR is another question. If she can, the sport is going to get a big boost.
And it’s going to start here in Southern California.