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Caraviello: Danica's move leaves Wise again in limbo

August 31, 2011, David Caraviello,

Danica's decision to drive full time thrusts Wise once again into a state of limbo

No one would have blamed him had he felt somewhat jaded, or in the least a touch bittersweet. Last week's announcement that Danica Patrick was moving into NASCAR's Nationwide Series full time was greeted with such rampant jubilation that it merited a statement even from the series chairman himself. But for Josh Wise, news of the open-wheel starlet's looming career shift boiled down to one very simple and very personal thing -- he was losing the best ride he had ever known.

Wise has been the other driver in JR Motorsports' No. 7 car this season, piloting the vehicle for most of the events that Patrick misses in her partial NASCAR schedule, and keeping the entry safely in the top 30 in owner points. While Patrick rotates between Nationwide and IndyCar, Wise rotates between start-and-park efforts and competitive runs in the No. 7 car. Results like the fourth-place finish he recorded early this month in Iowa stand among the highlights of his brief but already checkered NASCAR career.

"You hope somebody in the garage would notice him enough to where he can get a full-time ride, because he deserves to be here, and deserves another run."


Next year, though, the No. 7 will belong to Patrick full time, a fact that thrusts Wise -- who has floated around the Nationwide tour since a ride with Michael Waltrip Racing went belly-up due to a lack of sponsorship -- back into a career limbo he knows all too well. And yet, don't expect anger or disenfranchisement from a driver who has long since learned to roll with disappointment and appreciates every break he gets.

"I remember when I got this opportunity last year, I was just on cloud nine," remembered Wise, a 28-year-old native of Riverside, Calif. "It was just one race at first. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is it.' I've just had a blast. I guess I could have asked for more. I could have asked to run [full-time]. But really, I couldn't have asked for more. They've been really great to me."

Like everyone else in the sport, Wise knew it was coming, and understood when he signed on that the prospect of Patrick eventually taking over the ride full time was part of the deal. "It comes as no surprise," he said. Wise has had plenty of experience dealing with uncertainty, having driven for 11 different Nationwide owners since moving to NASCAR from the U.S. Auto Club and ARCA. As a result, he's developed a very practical, somewhat protective, and rather admirable mindset -- make the best of everything, and hope opportunities come along.

Even so, it isn't easy knowing his days in the No. 7 car are now finite. "This is by far the best opportunity I've had since I've been out here, and even then it's still really hard because I'm filling in," he said. "I run, and then I'm off a month, and then I'm jumping in. It's just really challenging. I have high expectations, I know they have high expectations. It's hard to not get down about results sometimes, but you kind of have to step back and look at the situation overall and kind of make the best of everything."

Wise first hooked up with JR Motorsports for last year's second race at Nashville, in what was supposed to just be a one-off event. The opportunity came as Wise was trying to pull himself out of a career drought that had gotten so bad he had gone back to racing sprint cars, believing his days in NASCAR were over. The Nashville ride turned into another the next week at Kentucky, and eventually the fill-in job for the races Patrick would miss. That gig continued into this season, when JR Motorsports was even able to sell many of Wise's races to sponsor TaxSlayer. His consistent efforts have helped keep the No. 7 well inside the top 30 in owner points, allowing Patrick to race without the headache of making the races on speed.

"Josh can definitely help any race team, especially if they want to be consistent and run for the points," said Tony Eury Jr., crew chief and co-owner of the No. 7 car. "That's how we kind of got hooked up with him. He drove for a lot of start-and-parks, and he's good on equipment. He doesn't tear up a lot of stuff, he's going to be consistent, and he just hasn't had the opportunity where he can just get in a car and let it all hang out, and not have to worry about finding a ride or looking for a ride or keeping it for the next week. He's done really well in our car. We picked up a ton of points with him last year. We were 15 points on the bubble, and came back to finish [17th] in the points. A lot of it was because of his races."

In 13 starts in the No. 7 so far this year, Wise has an average finish of 15th. The high point was Iowa, and a fourth-place result that was the best of his career. "That's Josh Wise. That's the way he drives," Eury said. "He's very consistent, he's got a very good arc into the corner. The only thing I've been preaching at him is, be a little bit more aggressive on these restarts ... and he did all that at Iowa. He's very knowledgeable about the car. He test drove for a year and a half under the radar with Michael Waltrip when the [new Sprint Cup car] was coming. So he's got plenty of experience; he's got a good feel for the car."

These days, though, that's often not enough to land a driver a competitive ride in a Nationwide tour where sponsors naturally gravitate toward the bigger names of moonlighting Sprint Cup stars. On weekends he's not in the No. 7, Wise often races start-and-park efforts. He's not sure what his future may hold at JR Motorsports or elsewhere, only that he's now looking for a ride in a climate where most of the top Nationwide rides are affiliated with Cup teams, and where many owners aren't even attempting full races, much less looking for drivers to build a contending team around.

"Nationwide is easy to sell when you have a Cup driver in it," said Zak Brown, chairman of Just Marketing International, an Indianapolis agency that specializes in motorsports. "It's harder to sell a Nationwide driver, especially with a lot of Cup drivers coming in. So if I'm a sponsor, you want to find the biggest name you can get."

That makes it difficult for the many drivers on the Nationwide tour like Wise, who would seem to have the right combination of talent and marketability, but have found trouble trying to break through nonetheless. Wise said he will probably fill out the remainder of this season driving Curtis Key's No. 40 car, which he piloted in recent events at Watkins Glen and Montreal. Beyond that, Wise's future will likely be determined by sponsorship -- or a lack of it.

"I don't really have any long-term direction. I don't even know what I'm doing three weeks from now, let alone next year," Wise said. "I think the biggest challenge for me in all this is, I've won and I've been the best guy in everything I've ever driven up to now, you know? The fact that I haven't been able to secure a full-time ride and be that guy at this level just motivates me even more. Because I want to be that, and I know I can. I'll keep plugging away until that right opportunity comes."

Eury, for one, would like to see it happen. Patrick has received all the attention in the No. 7 car this season, but Wise has done much of the heavy lifting. "It's been great for our company to have somebody like Josh. We've been fortunate enough to keep him as long as we have," Eury said. "But you hope somebody in the garage would notice him enough to where he can get a full-time ride, because he deserves to be here, and deserves another run."