On Wednesday, Danica Patrick is expected to announce her move to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series full-time in 2012. But While Danica is not expected to join the Cup Series until 2013, pressure from the sponsors and the networks may force NASCAR to give her a spot at the Daytona 500 to kick-off the 2012 season.
Patrick, who has been racing in the open-wheeled Indy Car series since 2005, has been competing part-time in NASCAR’s “minor league” circuit, the Nationwide Series, for the past two seasons. Last year, Patrick started 13 races, never finishing in the top 10.
This year, you can see that she is starting to adjust to the stock car environment. In seven Nationwide races, she has finished in the top-10 three times, including a fourth place finish at the Las Vegas race, after starting 22nd.
But at 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, can Danica make the jump to NASCAR? It won’t be easy.
While speaking on “ESPN NASCAR Countdown,” former NBA number one draft pick-turned-NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty pointed out that Patrick will have trouble handling the bigger cars. “It is absolutely wonderful for the Nationwide series. I think Danica Patrick has made a lot of progress this year. I think it will be fun to watch her run full-time. I don’t care about the female thing. I think she is a very good race car driver,” said Daugherty. “But as far as the Cup series? I say no, no, no on that…We’re talking about a 3500 pound race car, 900 horsepower, and no downforce. She is not ready for that.”
While Patrick may not be ready, money may force her to make the jump earlier than expected, especially for NASCAR’s premiere events like the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, which is held at a venue Patrick is very familiar with, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Television ratings for the Daytona 500 were up this year, but they were still the second-lowest rated since 2000. And while the Brickyard 400’s ratings were also up this year, attendance continued a dramatic downward trend with this year’s mark (~138,000), about half the size of the 2007 crowd (~270,000).
With NASCAR’s current $4.5 billion television contract with Fox, ESPN, and TNT set to expire in 2014, there will be a lot of pressure to get Danica into the bigger cars sooner rather than later. And that could happen as soon as the 2012 Daytona 500, whether or not she is ready.