News & Media

A warm, and somewhat wary, welcome for Patrick

August 26, 2011, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The most challenging seasons of Jeff Gordon's racing career were his rookie campaigns in what are now the Nationwide and Sprint Cup circuits, inaugural efforts in which it seemed his every move was being watched and evaluated. The weight of all those eyes and expectations was so heavy, he remembered, he felt them even when they weren't necessarily there.

Now, another heralded rookie is preparing to step into that cauldron. And the weight of expectations promises to be heavier than ever when Danica Patrick slides into her No. 7 car next year as a full-time driver on the Nationwide tour.

"It should be interesting," Gordon said. "To me, it's far more challenging to her than it is for me, because I didn't have that kind of hype and expectations and that many eyes on me. Even though I felt like I did, I know I didn't. The most challenging years in my racing career were definitely my rookie year in Nationwide and my rookie year in Cup, just because you feel you have so much to do to step it up, to live up to any expectations that there are. She certainly has a lot to live up to."

Patrick may be 2,600 miles away this weekend competing in an open-wheel event in Sonoma, Calif., but her shadow easily covered the distance to Bristol Motor Speedway. Patrick announced Thursday that she would move full time into the Nationwide tour next year with JR Motorsports, and also run a handful of Sprint Cup events -- including perhaps the Daytona 500 -- in a yet-to-be numbered entry at Stewart-Haas Racing. Friday, Patrick's arrival was welcomed by competitors in NASCAR's premier series, with the understanding that her performance will eventually have to match the hype.

"I think Danica still has to prove herself from a performance standpoint," Gordon added. "I think she's impressed a lot of people in some of her performances this year, but I think she still has a long way to go. I think she's ready for this sport, I think it's awesome to have her making that announcement to be full time. We'll just have to wait and see how she does in a full-time season and in those Cup events she's planning on doing."

One of those could be the Daytona 500. Although Patrick hasn't committed to the sport's biggest race, it's clear the event is on her radar screen. One of her best finishes this season was a 10th-place effort in the July Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway, and it would clearly be difficult for car sponsor GoDaddy to eschew the commercial bonanza that a berth in the Daytona 500 would carry with it.

"I think that Daytona would be a tough deal to turn down," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns Patrick's Nationwide Series ride. "It's obviously the biggest race of the season, the best opportunity to secure sponsorship dollars at that level. I'm sure that will be something that they look at. We're just focusing on how we can help her in the Nationwide Series."

Earnhardt also sounded like he wouldn't stand in the way of a potential Indianapolis 500 effort should Patrick choose to go that route. The Indy 500 and Charlotte Nationwide race, he pointed out, aren't on the same day. "She can do whatever she wants to do," he said. "It don't matter to me."

On the Sprint Cup side, at least, there are many details still to be worked out. Patrick said she'll compete in eight to 10 races at level, and car owner Tony Stewart said ideally he'd like to find a way to fill out the rest of the season with that vehicle to try and keep it north of the top 35 in owner points. That would likely mean finding another sponsor as well as another driver, allowing Patrick's part-time ride to morph into a full-time car at Stewart-Haas. "It's in everybody's best interests to do that," Stewart said.

As for personnel, Stewart said he began that process "a month ago," but provided no details. If Patrick wants to use Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief for her Sprint Cup efforts, Earnhardt said such a thing could probably be worked out. Eury has shepherded Patrick through all 20 of her Nationwide starts, and the two have a very good working relationship. Friday, Eury said such speculation is premature.

"We haven't even discussed what's going on over there," he said. "It would be kind of hard for me do, but I ain't never going to say no to nothing. We'll just have to see."

The Stewart-Haas facility in Kannapolis, N.C., can easily accommodate a third team, although the organization will clearly have to increase its levels of manpower and equipment. "I really don't know how it's going to affect our entire organization," said Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman, Patrick's soon-to-be teammate. "Obviously, there's a lot of hype around it, and we've seen other areas of the sport [that] where there can be a lot of hype, there can be a lot of area for disappointment. It's something I think we're all looking forward to."

Even so, some stepped warily. Brad Keselowski took to Twitter on Thursday to voice his concerns that Patrick's sometimes-racy marketing techniques may undermine the credibility of future female racers "who wish to make it based on skill, mental toughness, and a never give up attitude." If Patrick does not succeed, Keselowski wrote, "no female will get a chance for years to come."

Friday, he stood firm on those comments. "I said what I meant," he said.

Earnhardt didn't agree. "People get opportunities in this sport in many different ways," he said. "I don't necessarily agree with that. I think she has shown to be a tough racer and a marketing machine. She's really savvy, and I think she just opened the door to a lot more opportunities for other women whether she measures up to everybody's expectations or not."

Those expectations will surely be there for a driver who has shown potential in her two part-time Nationwide seasons, most notably a fourth-place run this past March at Las Vegas that set the record for best finish by a woman in a NASCAR national-series race. And they will only ramp up once she moves into Nationwide full time and dips a toe into NASCAR's premier series.

"She faces a lot of tough criticism, and she does a good job of handling it," Earnhardt said. "I think she does a good job of keep a good attitude and not letting that kind of stuff change the person you are. She knows what she's here to do, she loves to drive race cars. She enjoys doing that, and has a good attitude about it."