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Sports Then and Now

Does NASCAR Need Saving By Danica Patrick?

Posted on February 12, 2010 by Dean Hybl
Is Danica Patrick what NASCAR needs?

Is Danica Patrick what NASCAR needs?

It seems like only yesterday that NASCAR was emerging on the national scene as a sport that could rival baseball, basketball and maybe even football as one of the most popular sports in the United States. Now, as the sport enters the second decade of the century, NASCAR finds itself suddenly struggling economically and simply battling to remain nationally relevant.

Few things illustrate how things have changed in recent years more than the circumstances surrounding the start of the 2010 season.

Just days after NASCAR announced a 10 percent purse reduction for 2010, the season is kicking off not with fanfare around its greatest stars, but instead around an IRL import who will not even be competing in the prestigious season opening Daytona 500 or the primary Sprint Cup Series.

To most Americans, Danica Patrick is probably better known for her GoDaddy commercials and straight dark hair than she is for her performance on the racetrack.

In five seasons driving in the IndyCar Series, Patrick has one victory in 81 races. She was the 2005 Rookie of the Year after finishing fourth at the Indianapolis 500.

Overall, Patrick has made five appearances in the Indianapolis 500 and has placed in the top 10 four times. In 2009 she finished third, for her best finish in the prestigious event.

Given that open wheel racing has suffered a significant decline (primarily self inflicted) in popularity over the last two decades, it is no real surprise that Patrick would eventually start looking at running on the NASCAR circuit.

It will take Danica Patrick some time to get used to driving in NASCAR.

It will take Danica Patrick some time to get used to driving in NASCAR.

What has been a bit surprising is how despite the fact that she is competing only in the Nationwide (second level) Series and originally wasn’t even going to compete at Daytona, the entire buzz around Daytona this week seems to be about Patrick, rather than the “Super Bowl of NASCAR.”

Starting her transition to NASCAR in the Nationwide Series is a very smart strategy for Patrick and her handlers. She has little previous experience in the cars and the adjustment from Indy cars is quite significant.

In addition, there have been a number of much more seasoned drivers who have struggled when making the move from open wheel cars to stock cars.  Former Indianapolis 500 champions Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti are among the former Indy drivers that have struggled to get a footing in NASCAR.

The addition of Patrick could be just the shot in the arm that NASCAR needs at a time when the sport is struggling to maintain the gains in popularity it saw earlier in the new century.

Regardless of whether she ever has success on the track, Patrick has already brought new sponsors to the sport and will likely bring back some of the fringe NASCAR fans who have slipped away from the sport over the last few years.

So, while Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon remain the biggest names on the track, they will likely soon be sharing the stage with America’s favorite female driver.

One thing is for sure, thanks to the popularity of Patrick, the face of NASCAR is likely changing forever.

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