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Patrick's impact on sport hinges on performance

August 25, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Patrick's impact on sport hinges on performance
Experts agree Patrick on the track isn't enough, she needs to succeed

It's understandable why so many people in NASCAR are so giddy about the prospect of Danica Patrick competing full-time in the Nationwide Series next season. She is one of the more recognizable and marketable race car drivers on the planet, a figure whose athletic potential, commercial viability and sex appeal have traditionally outshined even her exploits on the track. She commands attention simply by walking onto pit road in a firesuit, something very few other drivers -- even those much more accomplished -- can do.

We've already seen the results of that, even in Patrick's relatively short time in NASCAR. Her Nationwide debut last February in Daytona was the most-watched event from that series ever on cable television, drawing more than 4 million viewers and a rating that tripled what Nationwide races typically get. Executives at Daytona International Speedway are crossing fingers over a potential Daytona 500 attempt as part of a limited Sprint Cup campaign. Clearly, she can move the needle.

"It should help those cars that are not presently sponsored, no matter how well they're racing. If they still don't have sponsorship, then her ability to lift all the boats will be there."

--DAVID CARTER

And yet, there's still something of a novelty factor at work here, given that Patrick has competed in all of 20 NASCAR national-division races, and everyone is still wondering what she's capable of in a vehicle with fenders. We should begin to get some of those answers now that Patrick has announced plans to move into the Nationwide tour full-time in 2012. The more seat time, the better. Throughout this two-year dalliance with stock-car racing, Patrick's largest drawback has been a piecemeal schedule that forces her out of her No. 7 JR Motorsports car just as she seems to be getting the feel for it.

No more. Next season Patrick becomes a regular just like everyone else, a fact that should accelerate her growth curve, and extend those too-brief flashes of promise we've seen from a driver whose mentality and temperament seem so much better suited to stock cars than dainty open-wheel machines. From the standpoint of her personal development as a NASCAR driver, she'll finally be able to build on efforts week to week, and perhaps attain that level of consistency that has thus far evaded her.

And yet, this is all much bigger than Danica Patrick. No question, she is an individual driver with individual aspirations and her own individual reasons for making the commitment to NASCAR. But at the same time she enters a Nationwide Series that has issues of its own, from its constant search for an identity to the fact that championship leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. still drives a blank white race car too many weekends of the year. No question, Patrick's galvanizing effect has the potential to change that to a certain degree, to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. She brings with her attention and ratings, two things sponsors want to see, and it's not unrealistic to hope that the entire series may benefit from the brighter spotlight that follows Patrick wherever she goes.

"I think she will raise the overall awareness of the series and bring in some new fans. That's good for everybody," said Zak Brown, founder and chairman of Just Marketing International, an Indianapolis agency that specializes in motorsports. "I think she'll be successful commercially, and I think it will have a knock-on effect on the series itself, because people will be tuning into it. I'm sure she'll bring in new viewers, and that will be good for everybody."

For that to happen, though, one key thing has to occur -- Patrick has to eventually win, or at least get close. NASCAR fans are a savvy bunch, and are well-versed in the differences between real accomplishment and hype. New fans aren't as likely to be drawn in by somebody running 25th. Put Patrick up front, consistently, and the whole equation changes; there's a reason why the 2005 Indianapolis 500, where Danica led until almost the very end, enjoyed its highest TV rating in eight years. Drop her to the back, and it's the status quo. NASCAR is a results-oriented business, something not even Patrick's immense magnetism can change. Like everyone else, her impact on the Nationwide Series will ultimately come down to performance.

"She has a unique ability to raise the stature of the Nationwide Series," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "Even though it's the case that many of the top-tier drivers also participate in these races, you don't see the same level of notoriety, of media coverage or fan attention in that series. She's going to retrain the eye of a lot of racing fans to keep an eye on that series. That's obviously going to be good for the overall series."

There's a catch, though. "If she's competitive consistently, which is always vital, if she's always in the thick of it, then that will drive the TV ratings," Carter added. "It should help those cars that are not presently sponsored, no matter how well they're racing. If they still don't have sponsorship, then her ability to lift all the boats will be there. But once you get past the initial infatuation and interest in how she's going to compete, you just really need to know that she has to settle in to a steady state of being at or near the top of the pack, or it's just essentially going to be more of the same for the Nationwide Series."

In a series full of moonlighting Cup drivers with bigger names, sponsorship can sometimes be a tough sell. Not even the top teams are immune -- Roush Fenway Racing has availability on the vehicles of Nationwide points leader Stenhouse and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, full-time competitors who both drive blank white race cars more often than they'd like. Those cars are white to try and generate attention, something that could be made easier with a contending Patrick in the field.

"We've gotten phone calls from people the Monday morning after a guy runs a race [saying], 'Hey, I had no idea that there was availability. I had no idea you guys didn't have a sponsor. How can I get involved?' That's certainly our philosophy when we run the white cars," said Kevin Thomas, Roush Fenway's vice president of strategic marketing. "With Danica, if people begin to watch Nationwide races who haven't historically, and we have a bigger audience, and someone else can see, hey, one of our guys is available -- then sure, that would be terrific. Could it happen? Absolutely. Will it? I have no idea."

Although she has yet to complete her second partial season on the Nationwide tour, Patrick is fast becoming a familiar face. She's been accepted by NASCAR, and clearly her full-time plans for next season indicate that she accepts the sport. These are both good things. The by-product, though, is that one day the novelty will erode, and her mere presence won't be enough to generate the attention it once did. That's why winning plays such a pivotal role.

"She's been around long enough, and been in enough NASCAR races that it's not like she's completely new to NASCAR," Brown said. "She's going to have get some results -- ideally win races, certainly run at the front. Because she's been around long enough now that there is a novelty factor, but it's got to be backed up with results."

Carter agreed. "Years ago, people might say, 'Hey, let's see what this woman is all about.' Now, that intrigue is kind of gone," he said. "Now it just boils down to winning. It's not like she's in her rookie season anymore. She's had arguably more ink than any other driver over the last so many years .... She is by no means an unknown quantity at this point, so I think it's going to revert to her need to win even earlier."

From the limited returns gathered so far, she seems completely capable of it. Patrick catches a lot of grief for having won only once in major-league auto racing, that on fuel mileage in an IndyCar event in Japan. Much like her NASCAR boss Dale Earnhardt Jr., she's often knocked for receiving a level of attention disproportionate to her achievements. And yet, to see how well Patrick raced at Las Vegas in March and at Daytona in July, to see the progress she's made between this year and last, to see how her feistiness meshes so perfectly with the beating and banging nature of stock cars, to know how good her Hendrick-made cars are -- anything seems possible.

Even the sight of that No. 7 up front, contending for race wins. That's the kind of thing that could stop casual sports fans in their tracks as they flip past ESPN, or lead potential sponsors to give the Nationwide Series a second look. "I think she has the ability to do that, but only if she's on the lead lap," Carter said. "Very few sports fans in America, whether they're casual fans or diehard fans, are willing to tune in to watch someone who's out of contention. Just look at the golf ratings when Tiger [Woods] isn't there. Look at what happens to some of these major-market franchises when their team is out of contention for the playoffs during the dog days of summer. It still boils down to the quality of the product."

Brown sets the bar high. "She's got to be running top-10 now on a regular basis," he said. "And if she wins ... she could be as big as any name in NASCAR."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.