That's Racing: Is Danica flirting with NASCAR again?

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 2:37am

Danica Patrick

She didn’t say yes. But then, she didn’t say no.

What Danica Patrick said, when asked in a recent New York Times interview if she might consider dumping the Indy Racing League for NASCAR was, “it’s interesting.”

Patrick, a racy racer (her Go-Daddy TV commercial was deemed too steamy to be aired during the Super Bowl) is in the final year of her IRL contract with Andretti Green Racing. Because of that, suddenly the Danica-to-NASCAR speculation that was hot and heavy a couple of years ago is simmering again.

It cooled abruptly last season amid Indy star Dario Franchitti’s NASCAR flop and the continued struggles of fellow Indy champ Sam Hornish Jr. in racing’s Wide World of Fenders.

Now Danica may be making eyes at NASCAR again.

Would going to NASCAR be a wise career move? In the IRL she’s a pretty face in a small crowd — in NASCAR the crowds are larger and drivers seldom pose for magazine photos in itty-bitty bikinis. Then again, personality and popularity can compensate for performance: witness Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip, whose popularity has not wilted amid ongoing wobbles.

There’s no denying Danica’s magnetism. During the IRL’s past visits to Nashville Superspeedway she consistently drew the biggest swarms of fans, received the most rousing applause and sold the most souvenirs.

Patrick is not the most successful driver in the open-wheel series, but given her tremendous off-track exposure — no pun intended — she’s easily the most visible and most famous. As thunderous as Danica-mania has been in the IRL, it would be magnified a hundred-fold in NASCAR with its monster fan base and unparalleled media coverage.

Patrick, with her savvy marketing instincts, realizes that she could create her own gold mine in NASCAR.

Would some top team owner take a chance on her? In a heartbeat, especially given the current economic climate when high-dollar sponsors are at a premium. The exposure that Patrick would bring to any team and its sponsor would fill a swimming pool with corporate drool.

If it turned out that she could drive a stock car, well, so much the better.

Could the petite Patrick cut it physically in the heavier, bulkier NASCAR machines? Are you kidding? Try shaking hands with her sometime; she’s got the grip of a lumberjack. Besides, most NASCAR drivers aren’t exactly hulking behemoths. Danica, in a wet swimsuit, probably out-weighs Mark Martin.

As Janet Guthrie once famously quipped in response to the can-women-do-it question: “I don’t have to lift the car, I just have to drive it.”

There’re no question that Patrick could physically drive stock cars, and no question that her presence in NASCAR would create a media whirlwind seldom seen in the sport.

But could she be successful in stock car racing, with its bigger fields, longer schedules and tougher top-to-bottom competition?

She would be rich, but would she be happy? That, in coming months, could be Danica’s dilemma.

Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.