There are new reports that IndyCar racing diva Danica Patrick is getting very close to making the official move to race fulltime in the NASCAR Nationwide Series next season.
The Associated Press is one of the news sources reporting that Patrick is in the late stages of negotiating a deal that would end her regular racing gig in the open-wheel Izod IndyCar Series in favor of stock-car racing as a regular in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide circuit, with select events in the major-leagues of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series.
"She's probably gone, but not definitely," according to comments made very recently by Michael Andretti, Patrick's IndyCar team owner, to Sports Illustrated.com. "We're still working on it," he said.
This presents a big issue for the IndyCar Series, which stands to lose its most recognized name and one of the hottest brands in motor racing right now (no pun intended), even if her on-track record doesn't quite match up to the level of attention.
Patrick, 29, began her IndyCar career in 2005. Since that time, she has made 110 starts and produced one win, in Japan in 2008, the first in IndyCar by a female driver. She has qualified on the pole three times in her seven seasons of high-level open-wheel racing and has finished in the top five 20 times, including a surprising fourth-place in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005. She actually was in position to win the 2009 Indy 500, but she overshot the pit in her final stop and ended up settling for third place. Helio Castroneves won that year. Patrick also has finished in the top ten 60 times since her IndyCar debut in 2005.
"When things are right, she's as good as anybody out there," Andretti said. "In 2009, we finished fifth in the championship, and that is not easy. You have to be on it to do that. I believe we were getting there, and then the NASCAR thing came up and that made it harder for her."
Patrick continues to deny that there is anything going on that will significantly change her current racing status. "There is nothing to report," Patrick says. "These things come out, and I'm as surprised as other people when I see them. There have been no decisions made, nothing finalized. I have no idea how these things get started," she says.
You have to stop and ponder, though. What does she mean by "nothing finalized."
Randy Bernard, chief executive of IndyCar, isn't saying so outright, but he leaves the impression that the Izod IndyCar Series is planning on its most popular driver and marketing machine to jump ship. "I'm a realist, and my opinion (is) where there is smoke there is fire," Bernard told SI.com. "I don't have time to dwell on whether she is or isn't going. My job is to build the series with who is here.
"We'd love for her to stay," he said. "But IndyCar has played its role, and she will make that decision whether she will stay or not in the near future."
Patrick's IndyCar season for Andretti Autosport thus far in 2011 has been somewhat lackluster. In 12 open-wheel races this season, the Midwest native has one top-five finish (second in the Milwaukee 250), and six top-ten finishes. She led ten laps at this year's Indianapolis 500, finishing tenth, but she has managed only three other lead laps all year in IndyCar, and those were in her last race (last Sunday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course).
The best finish for the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet Patrick drives in NASCAR's Nationwide Series this season has been fourth at Las Vegas in March in her third race. She was tenth in her season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona, and in a return to Daytona on July 1, Patrick led 13 of the 100 laps and was out front with two laps to go but couldn't hold on. She was involved in a major wreck as she crossed the finish line and ended up tenth.
The elder statesman in the Andretti family and legendary race-car driver and team owner, Mario, believes Patrick will leave her mark on IndyCar racing and that she has been good for the sport. "She is going to be missed," Andretti said in an interview with SI.com., "but if the series depended on one individual the series would be in big trouble. She has been great for the series, but the series has outgrown just one single person.
"She will be missed and be an asset to NASCAR like sh was to IndyCar, but the series will go on an keep growing without her," the racing legend said.
Patrick is scheduled to race in six more events in the IndyCar Series schedule this season and six more Nationwide stock-car races. It's never over till it's over, but it sounds like this one may be.
You have to agree with IndyCar chieftan Bernard's assessment that where there is smoke, there is usually always a fire. A good number of rumors, as we all know, turn out to be true. And I think you can put all the smoke wafting around Danica Patrick and her NASCAR aspirations (not to mention the bucks that go with it as the most popular motor sport in the U.S.) in that category.
I don't think either race series will be at its 2011 conclusion before we receive the definitive word on Ms. Patrick's transfer of allegiance to NASCAR.